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Aug 7, 2015

Gaza in the U.S. Media: A Conversation with Omar Baddar

The Palestine Center ended its 2015 Summer Intern Lecture Series last week with a panel entitled “Operation Protective Edge: Representation in the U.S. Media.” Panelists Dr. Edmund Ghareeb, professor of Global Kurdish Studies at American University, and Omar Baddar, political analyst, digital producer, and human rights advocate, gave their perspective on American coverage of the 2014 Gaza war across different media outlets. Our interns sat with Omar Baddar after the lecture to probe further into how U.S. media has shaped American understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What were the difficulties that American sources faced when reporting in war zones, such as Gaza in the summer of 2014? Which American media outlets, if any, do you think offered laudable coverage of the war?

Omar Baddar: In terms of the restrictions that media outlets face, war zones are places where virtually nobody is allowed in. That is always a problem. For example, throughout the clashes that happened during the second intifada it was very difficult for media outlets to gain access. There were cases of journalists actually being shot, including Western journalists, and not just Palestinian ones, by Israeli occupation forces. It is very unsafe, and it is understandable that the media would be somewhat reluctant to cover a war zone. You end up with Al Jazeera effectively being one of the few outlets that cover what is happening. They get very direct footage of the unfolding destruction.

In terms of what outlets have laudable coverage, it is hard to say, because it is a really comparative thing: sometimes the level of improvement that a certain outlet had is more laudable than another outlet that has always had good coverage and just maintained it. If you look at Democracy Now’s coverage it was obviously fantastic, but that is what you expect from Democracy Now; they are going to be really good on an issue like this. Yet, in terms of improvement, what was noteworthy was MSNBC’s coverage. The presence of Chris Hayes on the network and the kind of perspective he brings, the openness he has for having different points of view and different backgrounds of guests being presented is really noteworthy. It might be hard to imagine a show where Yousef Munayyer and Noura Erakat together speaking on a major U.S. network, but Chris Hayes’ show is where that sort of thing happens.

How did the media’s portrayal of this last Gaza War compare to more general depictions of the Arab world, Middle East, and Palestine in American media?

The most relevant comparison would be to earlier episodes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I started paying attention to media coverage during the second intifada when the narrative was extremely one sided. It was very much that Israel was the victim of Palestinian violence and it had to protect itself. When you compare that coverage with this latest round of violence, you see that there was an improvement of sorts. Suddenly, the war was portrayed as one between two equal parties. Even though that is an improvement it remains deeply problematic. You are talking about a false moral equivalence because ultimately you are dealing with an occupier and an oppressor fighting against an occupied and an oppressed population. In terms of balance of power there is also a problem because Israel is the most sophisticated military force in the entire region, certainly one of the most sophisticated in the entire world, and the Palestinians are effectively a defenseless population with no military capabilities apart from some guns and makeshift rockets that hardly do any damage. Even though one can say that there is improvement over previous coverage, it remains extremely biased in many ways.

How has the American media’s coverage of Gaza shaped or influenced Americans’ understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

There are subtle biases that are hard to detect. There was an acceptance of Israel’s narrative that the starting point of this round of violence was the kidnapping of three Israeli settlers and their subsequent killing. Yet, just the day before that there was a Palestinian man and his ten-year-old child killed by an Israeli strike. It doesn't occur to anyone to consider this as the starting point of the conflict because people in the United States are just reflexively used to the idea that Palestinians initiate violence and Israel responds. More broadly, there is very little mention of the fact that Palestinians are living under an illegal occupation, and that this is really what stokes the conflict. Criticism of Israel's position in these subjects focuses on the disproportionate nature of Israeli attacks. Some Americans come away with the sense that Israel is responding disproportionately and causing much suffering to the Palestinians and that is terrible. Ultimately, though, they are under the false impression that Israel is only responding to violence disproportionately as opposed to initiating it and perpetuating this conflict.

Do you think that the growing power and pervasiveness of social media, "Gaza snapchat" for instance, is a key tool in the reformation of major news outlets and how they cover events on the ground in Palestine?

I think this sort of thing is actually very useful and very important. I know there are some criticisms by people who say, “Oh well, snapchat featuring the West Bank doesn’t really make up for Tel Aviv featuring on the eve of the war,” but the fact that you got something out of it is still something. Even though you don’t get everything out of it, you still get something. The more people engage in these types of things, the more active they are on social media in general, then the more buzz they create around certain communities. Even if you are talking about life in Palestine in a very non-political fashion, that still counts for something.

I think there is this mindset that whenever you mention the word Palestine, you immediately get images of conflict, and I think reminding people that there is still a Palestinian society beyond that is really important. That is one thing that really suffered the most damage because of Israeli policies in Palestine. When Palestine becomes free, and I am very hopeful that one day it will be, the biggest challenge will be to rebuild Palestinian society. Whatever society that you end up with after enduring so many years of exile and occupation is going to be different from the society that your parents or grandparents might remember. I think that any attempts to keep Palestinian society alive in people’s consciousness, through social media, have a positive impact in the long run. And in the short run, any buzz you create around it is positive as well.

What impact has social media and the media in general had on the successes and failures of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement? What potential help can social media give to BDS to allow it to grow?

The BDS movement has been a really invaluable tool in the struggle to achieve Palestinian rights. At a time when there is complete political stagnation and media blackout, the fact that people had a way to fight back through BDS is crucial.  It has a major impact in spite of the lack of mainstream coverage of it. We have gotten to the point where there have been so many major victories that even Israeli politicians are openly talking about BDS as a threat, in many cases exaggerating it and distorting the aims of the movement. Nonetheless, the way they are reacting to it and trying to de-legitimize it tells you something about just how effective it has been.

It has been very effective. I don’t think mainstream media outlets have been helpful at all. There was a congressional briefing about BDS not long ago that did not have a single Palestinian on the panel, and not a single person fully supportive of the broader BDS campaign was there to speak. So the way BDS is being dealt with through official channels is still extremely problematic, but I think that we can take some satisfaction in knowing that it is actually having an impact and that the Israeli political establishment is reacting to it in really negative ways. It is only a matter of time before mainstream outlets have to accept the fact that it is a broad movement that is gaining significant momentum. It is interesting that BDS is supported by the overwhelming majority of Palestinians in a way that no other political idea, party or ideology is.

How does media coverage of BDS movement compare to coverage of the divestment movement in South Africa during apartheid?

We are definitely not there yet. Hopefully, we will get there one day. The divestment movement took so many years in South Africa to get to the point of mass support, and of having a significant impact on U.S. foreign policy. We are still years away from that, but I think that so long as we keep doing what we are doing, then we will get there one day.

The views expressed by speakers, writers and others do not necessarily reflect those of the Palestine Center or The Jerusalem Fund.

The Palestine Center is a non-political, educational forum and does not take positions on issues.


Aug 5, 2015

By the Numbers: Mapping Settler Violence in Summer 2015

Harassment and violence are daily concerns for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Dating back to the beginning of Israeli occupation in 1967 (see our last blog post on settler violence), the Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli settlers have attacked Palestinian civilians on a routine basis. Reports of settler violence against men, women, and children from all areas of the West Bank continue to pour into databases. Recently, a Palestinian home was set on fire by Israeli settlers in Duma, Nablus, killing 18-month-old Ali Dawabshe and hospitalizing the Dawabshe family. While multiple news outlets covered the attack, most instances of settler violence go unreported. The graph below, comprised of data from the Palestinian Liberation Organization Negotiations Affairs Department, tracks trends in settler violence since 1 June, 2015. It also provides insight into the types of attacks and the conditions that Palestinians face under the ongoing Israeli occupation.

Chart 1 redonw.PNG

Figure 1 shows the number of injuries per day in two-week segments from the beginning of June until early August (note that this data only includes three days’ worth of data in the month of August). We see an upward trend in the number of injuries with five injuries in the first two weeks of June to 19 injuries towards the end of July. In total, over the last 64 days there have been 48 injuries (0.75 injuries per day). This is slightly higher than the average daily injuries from the previous ten months (during July 2014 - May 2015 the average was 0.72 per day). Injuries due to settler violence have occurred almost daily for the past eleven years we have tracked settler violence, and the number of incidents has generally increased in the most recent months of the conflict. The PLO’s report does not include damage to property, psychological damage, or interruption of everyday routines in its definition of injury.

Chart 1 redonw.PNG

The PLO Negotiations Affairs Department’s daily report on settler violence tracks the occurrence of assault within the West Bank. These attacks are constant, and the reports frequently list more than one attack per day in major cities such as Hebron and Nablus. Figure 2 shows the number of attacks that occurred on each day from the beginning of June until 3 August. We see a general rise in the number of attacks, with a slight ease of violence in early to mid July. The attacks remain consistently high towards the end of July, with a maximum of nine attacks in early August. There were a total of 145 attacks in the 64 days recorded (2.27 attacks per day). 

Map of where settler violence occurred in Summer 2015
The violence is persistent and has been increasing in the more recent weeks. Palestinians living in the West Bank are under constant threat of violence as they carry out their daily routines.
Within these incidents of settler violence reported by the PLO, there were:

  • 29 stonings of Palestinians, which resulted in at least one hospitalization.
  • Eleven vehicular assaults whereby eleven Palestinians were run over and hospitalized.
  • 44 assaults on places of worship, 39 of which were on Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem.
  • Three incidents of arson which resulted in at least three injuries and the death of an 18-month-old Palestinian infant.
  • 31 incidents of destruction of property, some of which overlap with other incidents.
  • Two incidents of open gunfire of armed settlers toward unarmed Palestinian civilians.
  • 16 settler raids on Palestinian villages and homes.

We recognize that documenting settler violence represents only a small fraction of the structural, cultural, physical, and psychological violence inflicted upon Palestinians as part of the brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestine. This post does not describe the injuries and deaths that have occurred at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces, nor attacks by Palestinians on Israeli property or livelihood. Furthermore, the numbers reported in this post do not represent 100 percent of all settler violence incidents against Palestinians, but rather only the incidents that have been recorded by the PLO.


Jul 28, 2015

Gaza in Context: A Conversation with Nathan Brown and Yousef Munayyer

The Palestine Center began its 2015 Summer Intern Lecture Series last week with a panel entitled “Gaza in Context: Broader Implications in the Palestinian Plight.” Panelists Dr. Nathan Brown, professor of Political Science at George Washington University, and Dr. Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, gave their take on Gaza’s place within the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Our interns sat with the speakers after the lecture to probe further into how Gaza adds to and complicates the conflict.

Below are excerpts from the interview, which have been condensed and edited from the original.
Do you think that the character of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has changed with the advent of the last three wars in Gaza?
Munayyer: I would say that the core issues in the Israel-Palestine question remain the same, but I think that the impact these recent wars have had have been significant, but mostly on the international perception of the situation. I would add also to these wars in Gaza the [2006] war in Lebanon as well--where you saw a very powerful state with a very powerful military using its force in significant ways against what are essentially non-state actors or a stateless population that cannot compare. The civilian casualties are always the highest and the damage to civilian infrastructure is always significant.
For a generation of people who are coming to consciousness during this time, the image of Israel that they see is not the image of the generation that came to consciousness in 1967 and in 1973, where their understanding of the situation was formed by the realities of very, very different wars, where Israel was engaged in fighting against multiple state-backed armies, which also had the support of the Soviet Union in some cases. This is not Israel the underdog--this is very much Israel the dominating, oppressive factor. That has a big impact on shaping public perception on where the responsibility should be and where the blame should be and whose policies have to change. I think over time that will have an effect on the way that this issue is resolved.
Brown: I basically agree. If you look at this internationally, an awful lot of the focus was diplomatic--a peace process. Even before the Oslo agreements---the Madrid conference back in 1991 or you go back to UNSC resolution 242, a lot of this was just about some kind of diplomatic process getting started, and if it was a focus on any kind of fighting, it was Israel versus Arab states. What I think the wars have done from a peace process standpoint, is that they were a distraction. But, with no viable peace process, I think they are suddenly much more at the center point. And that’s true not simply on a policy level but rather very much on a popular level. Instead of all the focus being on the next summit conference, the aura surrounding this conflict is one of really ugly violence. I would say for Palestinian society it has made a difference as well. But that you could trace back a little earlier in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.
The strategy of the Palestinian leadership was mostly focusing on diplomacy, and that diplomacy seems to have run its course. Sometimes, depends on what your opinion is as a Palestinian, for some that was what the second Intifada was about, but certainly, with the last round of fighting, the idea that there is some kind of meaningful diplomatic process is one that just doesn’t have any purchase anymore. The extent of the war and the feeling of powerlessness, in the West Bank feeling almost disenfranchised with this, and the extent of the devastation in Gaza, is likely to be very, very large. Last time I was in Gaza in 2012, and even then, people would just--you would be walking on the street and people would point out, “Oh that’s where I was holed up during the last round of fighting,” or “There used to be a building there but it was brought down.” So it impinges on people’s thinking on Gaza tremendously.
How do you think last year’s war and its lasting effects are different from the previous two conflicts in Gaza?
Brown: It was longer and more destructive, I would say that. Both sides in essence went through previous rounds of fighting almost deliberately thinking they had specific goals that they wanted to accomplish and last summer’s fighting just went on in a way that was not only enormously destructive to the people, but was completely divorced from any kind of realistic political agenda. If anything, I think it probably showed the bankruptcy of the Israeli strategy. To some extent, I think it may have done the same to all of the Palestinian leadership; Hamas, for letting itself get dragged into this conflict and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah for -- in the eyes of some Palestinians--being complicit in it, and at the least being powerless to stop it.
Munayyer: I think militarily speaking there was a big difference in this most recent round than the previous rounds. In 2008-2009 for example, that war lasted a little over 20 days. More than a week into it, the Israelis decided to go in on the ground, and then they were on the ground for about fifteen days. They were very easily able to trisect the Gaza Strip, cut it up into different pieces, use night vision to move around in the evening, and to gain an advantage against the Palestinian militants there, and do so with very few casualties, relatively few casualties. The biggest difference militarily speaking in this conflict was the use of the tunnels and the ability of militants to essentially level the battlefield by being underground and bogging down the Israeli forces and if you look, what those tunnels effectively did was preventing an advance on land beyond three km. The Israelis never entered beyond three km because they were afraid of having militants pop-up behind them at all times and a number of times they did, and inflict much heavier losses than they did when the Israelis were in on the ground before that.
Of course, this war came with huge costs to the Palestinian population as well. But what it underscored is that there is no military solution to the problem in Gaza. And the policy that the Israelis have called “mowing the lawn,” which is essentially a maintenance policy through repetitive bombing every few years, is not going to solve the problem. In fact, what I think the militants were able to prove this time is that, without addressing the foundation of the problem, it’s only going to get worse. And it has. And so I think that immediately after the war, we began to hear some statements from members of the international community saying, “Look, this can’t happen again. There is no military solution to this.”
What concerns me is that since then, no serious steps have been taken to prevent the recurrence of another war. In fact, the conditions that existed before the war continue to exist now, and any minor escalation could lead to a flare-up and then a major operation again. So I think that it’s in between wars that those efforts need to be made, and unfortunately we haven’t seen them.

Does it work in Israel’s interest to treat Gaza and the West Bank separately? What has been done to bridge the divide that Israel is attempting to push?

Brown: What I would say is that this is definitely a project: a deliberate project of the Israeli Right. With the Israeli Left, there’s been different kinds of strategies, including, at times, an idea that what they wanted to do was foster a Palestinian leadership that could essentially negotiate authoritatively, but a feeling that the right leadership had to be fostered. And they were not very effective, I think, in playing the internal game of Palestinian politics. And I think right now, both because of the deliberate effort of the Right and failure of the Left, policies have been successful in the sense that there are not strong Palestinian institutions - the ones that operate for day-to-day administration operate just fine - but there aren’t strong Palestinian national institutions to pursue any kind of national strategy. I’m not even sure if there’s much strategic thinking on the part of Palestinian leaders. There is a very, very deep division.
For those parts of the Israeli political spectrum that were always pessimistic or opposed to the Palestinian national cause - that for them is a good outcome. And that is one that is not unsustainable but one that - to use the phrase that Yousef used earlier for Gaza - a different kind of “mowing the lawn.” Periodically, there will have to be attempts made by Israelis to continue to run place of securing an atomized Palestinian political environment. My own sense is that that serves society very, very poorly in the long-term. And that while it works out very, very well on a day-to-day, week-to-week, and even sometimes year-to-year basis, the fact is that a lot of Israelis sense almost an existential crisis for their society and for Zionism, that it’s creating a society that’s emerging as a pariah internationally and that is strong and secure in the conventional sense, but is not necessarily the kind of society you want to bequeath to your grandchildren. And so I’m not sure that approach is one that serves the members of the society long-term.
Munayyer: I think a lot of that is right. I think that there is definitely a difference between how the Israeli Left and the Israeli Right approaches this. That being said, I think one of the biggest underlying factors behind this division was really a product behind the Israeli Left’s efforts, whether intended or not, and that’s the Oslo process. The Oslo process essentially put the Palestinian leadership - they may not have had too much choice in the matter - in a position where the Israelis in the international community had far greater leverage over shaping their interests and their capacity than they ever did before when they operated in the diaspora.
And what this meant was that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority became increasingly vulnerable and dependent, because at the end of the day, it’s really the Israelis that allow that to happen. The Palestinians are not there by show of their own force. But also because the extent of the dependence the authority has on the international community and primarily the United States and Western European funders.
And so this has put the Palestinian Authority in a place where the independence of its policy-making is severely compromised, even to the extent that it is not capable of strategizing around national interests, because it merely wants to continue making payroll. And when you’re in that kind of situation and they share a lot of responsibility for the situation that they find themselves in, it’s very difficult to talk about long-term interests. I agree that there is obviously a long-term interest for Israelis and Palestinians to get out of this situation. But the level of strategy-making right now, the place where it’s at, is not a place where that is the focus. And I think so much of that is rooted in the Oslo process. And if they are in fact moving away from a U.S.-led process and willing to really take the leap, and not simply use internationalization as a method to boomerang back into a U.S.-led process, then I think they can start thinking about those interests differently.
But while they have talked about internationalization and moving away from a Washington-led process, it’s only been in the context of a longer-term plan of eventually going back, and I really don’t see that as being successful in the long-term.


Jul 10, 2015

Gaza Students Explore Creative Expression at The Jerusalem Fund

On Friday, 19 June, Executive Director Zeina Azzam and Gallery Al-Quds Curator Dagmar Painter organized a three-hour session with ten high school students from Gaza who had spent the academic year in the United States. They were participating in the State Department-funded Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, living with host families in different cities throughout the U.S. and studying in local high schools.

gaza students table

Painter gave them a tour of the exhibition “Creative Dissent,” currently on show at the Gallery, and introduced them to the art of graffiti. She said to the group, “You don’t have to be an artist to make graffiti; you just have to have something to say.” Painter encouraged the students to produce some graffiti works to add to the Galley’s exhibition, and several completed pieces that are now hanging in the current exhibition space.

looking at art

As the students toured the Creative Dissent show, they commented on the power of the wall paintings and photographs that young people in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia created during the first days of the Arab Spring. They were especially interested in the videos of the songs, chants and puppet shows created during that time, and the role that social media can play in disseminating dissent. Painter concluded with a short talk on the history of graffiti on the walls in Gaza, from the calligraphy schools held in the early days of Hamas rule, to the latest Banksy incursions.  They viewed graffiti on the gallery walls created by interns and other young visitors, and thus encouraged, produced some expressive works of their own.

student graffiti 2
student graffiti

Azzam conducted a session on poetry with the group, focusing on American poet Langston Hughes and several Palestinian and other poets. The group also wrote poems based on the session and shared them with each other. One of the exercises was to write a poem with a similar structure as Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” (see –that is, starting and ending with a question, and exploring possible answers within the poems itself. Below are some of the poems they wrote. Note that the students were given about ten minutes to write these poems, so they had no time to revise or work further on them. We are quite impressed with their profound ideas and writing, despite the short time frames.

What if there wasn’t hate in this world?
Would it still be so hard to live?
Or would you peacefully go and stand up
for yourself?
Would you be still complaining
about how the world is so unfair,
or would you actually go and make a change?
Maybe it’s so easy not to hate.
But not many people are willing to participate.
Will you be strong enough
to be the change?

What happens to my patience when I’m forced to wait?
Does it hope death for me
like my body does:
Or does it cry silently
till it gets out of breath?
Does it commit suicide,
or tries to stop me from doing the same?
Maybe it loves me and wishes me the best.
Or it’s not just something to think about
because aren’t we both just one?

When do we fade away?
Is it when we give up
                Like a coward in a battlefield?
Or is it when we lose faith
                And act like Judas and his traits?
Is it when we talk
                But act as adolescents?
Maybe we always just fade away,
Even if you are a martyr or a stinking corpse.

What happens when a flower dies?
Does it ever hear the music of a singing bird?
Or does it sway in the morning sky?

Many said that they were deeply transformed by their experiences in the United States. To that end, Azzam gave the students another exercise: to write a poem similar to Shel Silverstein’s “What a Day” (see, except to title it, “What a Year.” Here is a sampling of the poems they produced:

What a year,
Oh what a year!
My heart at first was so afraid.
It wasn’t until now I realized a dream was just made.
And from one splits two the family
Home as well side by side.
Friends, experience with tremendous amount
We used to say: 1, 2, 3, don’t stop the count!
I am 17 years old.
Now I am going home.
Oh what a year!

What a year,
Oh what a year!
Like waking up from a dream.
All the memories just fade away,
and now life is from where it stopped last year.
Oh it is gonna be the same?
Or it’s just the fear of yesterday.
I’m 16 years old
and I’ve felt my heart
for the first time in my life.
I’ve seen it grow!
Oh what a year!

What a year,
Oh what a year!
My life transformed from sky to another sky.
My heart doesn’t know if it will again fly.
And now my life will not be the same again.
I’m 16 years old
And feeling trapped between my own sky and their sky.
Oh what a year!

What a year
Oh what a year!
My ignorance ran away from me.
My new thoughts kicked out the old.
And now my world will not be all black.
I’m 16 years old
and feeling proud.
Oh what a year!

What a year
Oh what a year!
My small innocent mind ran away.
And now my thoughts will not be the same.
I’m only 17 years old
but it seems like that’s very old.
Oh what a year!

What a year
Oh what a year!
I got myself out of that dark box.
I knew myself better.
And now my dreams will no longer wait.
I’m 17 years old
and shaping my life just the way I want.
Oh what a year!

What a year,
Oh what a year!
My hatred left my heart.
My heart full of light.
And now my mind will not be deceived.
I’m 17 years old
and feeling proud.
Oh what a year!

The group seemed to enjoy these exercises as they spent some time in Washington, DC, before returning to their homes in Gaza. The YES program’s aim was to give them a few days of transition time to reflect on their academic year and prepare them to “re-enter” their country of origin. This session at The Jerusalem Fund allowed these students to bond with each other and to approach their experiences from an expressive and creative angle.

Jun 19, 2015

Palestinian Steadfastness and the Ramallah Friends School

Sumoud: Voices and Images of the Ramallah Friends School
Gordon Davis, Betsy Brinson, and Joyce Ajlouny discuss the history of the Ramallah Friends School (from left).

On 16 June, the Palestine Center hosted Gordon Davies, Betsy Brinson and Joyce Ajlouny to speak on the history of the Friends School in Ramallah. The school has withstood the test of time, witnessing Ottoman domination, the British Mandate, Jordanian administration, and Israeli occupation. Yet, the school’s commitment to Quaker values of nonviolence, dialogue, and equality has never wavered. Davies and Brinson spoke on the research and experiences that led to their book Sumoud: Voices and Images of the Ramallah Friends School. Ajlouny discussed her role as director of the school and the significance of the Friends School in the Palestinian community. Before the lecture, The Palestine Center’s summer interns sat for an interview with the three speakers to learn more.

Below are excerpts from the interview, which have been condensed and edited from the original.

A description on the website says that the Friends School has become “a symbolic presence of nonviolence, cooperation across cultures and intellectual integrity.” This is a beautiful note on the school. How do you feel you’ve accomplished this and how important is that to your mission?

Ajlouny: I think that it’s extremely important. It’s the real premise of our success and our perseverance throughout 146 years. You would think that after so many wars, occupations and administrations that the school would suffer and no longer exist, but that isn’t so. We are grounded by our Quaker tradition, ethos, and foundation. They are the things that often come back and challenge us when we make decisions. When we are running the Friends School, we think: how do we incorporate nonviolence, equality, and tolerance into our mission? As an administrator, that is something that I talk about a lot in our meetings with the board, the school administration, the teachers, or the students. We are often reminding people of the importance of that. It’s what has kept us afloat.

As Americans, Gordon Davies and Betsy Brinson, what did writing this book mean to you? And how did it shape your perspective of the conflict? 

Davies: During that year we spent at the Friends School, I also taught at Birzeit University. I taught in the English department with a little help from Joyce, who introduced me to the Friends School. Therefore, I saw several perspectives. It was a matter of learning about, and trying to learn about, a different culture, but also learning that we have a huge amount in common. The school’s values were endorsed by young students who said, “The school’s values are that of Judaism, they are that of Islam, and they are that of Christianity. It's not the religions that are the problem, it’s the people. People misuse the religions.” 

Brinson: As a historian, my area of expertise is American social history. This was the hardest history project I’ve ever done. I wasn’t familiar with Palestinian history, so I had to read a lot and ask a lot of questions. It was a tough job. Neither Gordon nor I are from a Palestinian background. We didn’t grow up in it. In contrast, if somebody says the War of 1812 or the Civil War, as an American, I’ll know what they’re talking about.

What is it like to write Palestinian history? Have you ever had difficulty in completing your research or traveling to Ramallah or the Friends School?

Brinson: Our research consisted of using basic primary research documents at various Quaker colleges in the U.S., and that wasn't a problem. But we did our primary research in Ramallah with many oral history interviews that we did with students, alumni, staff, and administrators. Most of them actually came to us at the school to do the interview. There were a few people that I had to go and meet. I don’t know Arabic. A lot of the streets in Ramallah aren’t marked. Trying to talk to cab drivers was difficult. So it was an interesting experience. We did have problems getting through checkpoints. My biggest concern was my tape recorder and whether I was going to get it through Israeli security at the airport. As it turned out, that was less of a problem than I had feared. But to protect the oral history interviews, I sent them back with several different people, so they were in different suitcases. They all made it back safely, so it wasn't as much of a concern as I feared it might be.

What are the Quaker values that make up the school? Why are they so important? What do you tell the students, and what do you write about on a daily basis to portray the Friends School accurately?

Davies: We thought getting a Palestinian perspective on the school was very important. Most of the things that had been written previously were written by mostly Americans and some British volunteers. They did good work, but they brought their own perspectives. One story in the book exemplifies the school’s Quaker values in practice. A teacher named Jean Zaru was teaching fifth graders. When she came into the room, the students were shouting, “PLO, Israel no!” It was illegal to talk about PLO before 1993. So, Zaru wrote “PLO” on the blackboard. Everybody stopped. They were frightened. It was illegal to write that. But she did. And she said, “Do you know what that ‘L’ stands for in ‘PLO’? It stands for liberation. Do you know what liberation is? It is not controlling other people and it is not having your way over them. It is sharing with other people and it is understanding another people’s needs. It is understanding that your needs and their needs have something in common.”

That is basically what she conveyed, and that is what I think that the Quakers try to convey. One of the things that struck us when we were there was a big parade we witnessed during Ramadan. It ran right down the street right outside of the school. All the Arab villages came and participated in the parade. But the Christians joined the parade, too. We thought that was remarkable. Then on Easter, the Christians had a parade, and the Muslims joined them! Again, the problem isn’t the differences between religions, but how people use and manipulate their religions.

Joyce Ajlouny, can you speak to how important education is during times of occupation and war to guide and lead the students at their young age?

Ajlouny: I really believe in the power of a value-led education. Time and time again, I have had parents come to my office asking for more financial aid to keep their kids in the school. They tell me that they have lost so much because of occupation. The only thing that they have is their investment in their children's education. They say, “Don’t take that away from us!” We are in a value-led school, and we are challenged by violence all around us every day. We do have students who come in feeling angry. After the 2014 Gaza war, the lower school principal came and said, “Joyce, we need to hire another counselor.” “But you have one,” I said. “You don’t know what the campus is like,” he explained. Students were more physical. They were running around and it seemed like their behavior was different. It was more violent behavior. They were agitated. We had to hire another counselor to deal with these issues. This is just one example. You can imagine the effect that occupation and war has on these children. 

So what is our role as a school, and what do we do to take away the stress? How do we give them something productive to work on and make them feel good about themselves? We give them a platform to voice their opinion and to debate. We have a lot of debates for normalization, against normalization. There is so much happening on campus that we don’t have a homogenous group of students. So, there is always lively debate. But we also have been very creative in allowing them to address these concerns in a productive, meaningful, creative way. Whether it is through art or performance, they do all sorts of commemoration. Nonviolence is always our message. As a Quaker school, it is our role to guide students to a nonviolent path. The BDS movement is very big on our campus, too. Our students are always challenging us as an administration to see if we are keeping up with BDS. When you see alumni of the school, you see their commitment to their country through service and nonviolence.

There was a student of ours who graduated from Stanford. I thought he’d go on to work at the UN. But he came back and started mobilizing in our community. He set up a tent in town and he was trying to mobilize for unity in the government. So these are the types of students who attend our school. Another one headed the BDS office in Ramallah. This is the difference that the Friends School is making in the context of occupation.

Joyce Ajlouny, do students at the Friends School ever have a chance to interact with Israelis, or has there ever been a program of that sort? How does that mix with the Quaker values?

Ajlouny: As a Quaker, I believe that dialogue is the best way to address issues. Yet, I also see that our community in Ramallah is not ready to normalize relationships with Israelis. But the Friends School is very much part of the community. We cannot come and impose what we think is the way forward. If the community at large is not ready to normalize relationships, then there would be huge resistance to any of our endeavors. Once Israelis and Palestinians are on equal footing, normalization will be acceptable. But we can’t normalize relations with our occupiers and the future soldiers who are going to be surrounding our city and bombarding us. The Friends School has to abide by community expectations. From a Quaker perspective, yes, interaction between Palestinians and Israeli is exactly what needs to take place. Communication is how hearts, minds, and souls changes. But that can’t happen quite yet. 

The term sumoud is the title of the book, which in Arabic means “steadfastness” or “standing one’s ground.” But what does sumoud mean in relation to the history of the Ramallah Friends School? Why did you choose that as the title of the book? 

Davies: The Friends School has witnessed one form of domination after another: first, the Ottoman Empire, then the British Mandate, then Jordanian administration, and finally Israeli occupation. Yet, the school remains and its values persist. We chose sumoud as the title to emphasize the school’s unyielding commitment to dialogue and equal rights. 

Ajlouny: What Gordon said is very true, and I also look at it from a different perspective. The families of students tell me that they would have left had it not been for the Friends School. So, the school keeps families steadfast in Palestine. Families remain because of the opportunities we provide. We are the only International Baccalaureate school in Palestine. Our students end up at top universities. There are always some students that make it into the Ivy Leagues. Many families would rather take advantage of the education we offer rather than emigrate to America or Jordan.

Jun 10, 2015

Palestinian-American Comedians' Historic Performance at the Kennedy Center

On Friday, 5 June, Amer Zahr, Mike Easmeil, Mona Aburimshan, and Said Durrah made history at the Kennedy Center. Sponsored by The Jerusalem Fund, Zahr and his fellow comedians were the first Palestinian American comedians to perform at the world-renowned performing arts center. Zahr’s routine, entitled “Being Palestinian Makes Me Smile,” quickly sold out and attracted a crowd of Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Using anecdotes from both their childhood and adult lives, Zahr and company turned the pain and struggle of the Palestinian narrative into relatable accounts of hilarity.

“Palestinians don’t have a ‘Plan B,’” Zahr explained to the audience. “There’s no country we can go back to if we mess up. That’s why we need to be the best we can be here. I remember taking a math test home to my Dad and saying, ‘Baba, Baba, I got a 96!’ To which he replied, ‘Where did the other four points go?’”

Zahr’s comedic style was a combination of high energy and clever quips. He engaged with the audience and encouraged everyone to clap as he danced around the stage. The sketch had The Jerusalem Fund’s staff cramping from laughter.

Zahr managed to make even the hardest parts of daily Palestinian life amusing. On the Israeli occupation, he commented: “No wonder the Israelis can find us so easily. What do you expect? All of the WiFi passwords in Ramallah’s coffee shops are ‘1122334455’ or ‘0123456.’ And anytime you ask for directions, people just say dughrii (go straight)!”

Amer Zahr and company pioneered the Kennedy Center stage for Palestinian comedians, and did so in front of a full and welcoming crowd. The unforgettable performance of “Being Palestinian Makes Me Smile” has made a mark in the history of the prestigious venue.

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Amer Zahr performs at the Kennedy Center ©  Houssam Mchaiemch

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Amer Zahr performs at the Kennedy Center ©  Houssam Mchaiemch

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(From left) Palestinian-American comedians Said Durrah, Mona Aburimshan, Amer Zahr, and Mike Easmeil
Houssam Mchaiemch

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A full house at the Kennedy Center ©  Houssam Mchaiemch