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The Attacks on Susan Abulhawa

When we think of the great struggles of our day we almost always think in terms of movements and groups. There are Communists and Fascists, Capitalists and Socialists, Jews and Muslims, Zionists and Christian Fundamentalists, Democrats and Republicans, Western Civilization and its rivals, ad nauseam. But if you look at how things really work in the world all those groups quickly break down into cliques of real people. For instance, the notion that it is the Zionists (or Israelis) and the Palestinians who now contest in the “Holy Land” is a convenient way of speaking about a struggle that involves millions of people with their competing ideologies, claims to rights and organizational set ups. However, it should never be forgotten that at ground level all of this is carried on by real people, each with their own interests, some more sane than others, but always flesh and blood folks. It is these individuals who are responsible and ought to be held accountable for how their struggles play out. There are, of course, far too many of them for us to know about. But those we can know as individuals, particularly the public advocates, we should pay serious attention to and consider them as representative of their causes. Representative not only as spokespersons, but also as reflections of the causes themselves.

It is in this sense that I present below a brief description of three people, one protagonist and two antagonists. Each of them are unofficial spokespersons involved in the shaping of the West”s popular understanding of Israeli-Palestinian conflict–one of the defining struggles of our time. This contest will help settle not only the fate of the Palestinians and the Israelis, but the future course of U.S. and European relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. In manner and nature of their arguments, these particular three can be seen as reflecting, for a Western audience, the collective character of their respective causes. They are among the “human faces” we are likely to encounter. Here they are:

1. Susan Abulhawa is a resourceful, principled and talented Palestinian American novelist. She is the daughter of Palestinian Refugees of the 1967 War and spent her youth in Kuwait, Jordan and occupied East Jerusalem, finally settling in the United States. In 2001 she founded Playgrounds for Palestine, an organization that arranges for the construction of playgrounds in Palestine and Lebanese refugee camps.

In 2006 Ms Abulhawa published the novel The Scar of David, which has now been re-titled Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury USA, 2010). As she describes it, this is a book of “historic fiction, where fictional characters live through real history.” The work is impeccably researched and moved by a principled objection to all states and institutions that judge human worth by race, religion or other social constructions. It carries the reader through the horrors and sadness of loss and displacement due to just such enforced judgments. In the novel the Palestinians are the victims that grab our sympathy, but Israeli Jews are also recognizable sufferers. They are products of their historical suffering, which they tragically transfer on to Palestinians. In both cases, it is a novel about victims made real and human. The book has been well received worldwide and translated into a many languages. One can fairly say that this novel has become, for many in the West, the most accessible gateway to a conflict that, for all too long, could only be approached through biased newspaper reporting. Yet, due to Ms Abulhawa’s very success, her novel has predictably triggered the wrath of prominent supporters of Israel.

2. Alan Dershowitz was born in 1938 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, N.Y. According to Dershowitz, his father was a religious man who took from Jewish teaching the notion that one should “defend the underdog.” This may have encouraged his son to become a successful defense attorney. This career choice seems also to fit Alan Dershowitz’s personality which is pugnacious. Dershowitz is not just a practicing lawyer. He also holds the Felix Frankfurter professorship of law at Harvard University where he has taught since 1964.

Alan Dershowitz is a strident defender of Israel. Indeed, more than any other issue, it is Israel that brings out the pugnacious side of Dershowitz’s personality. For instance, those who support Palestinian rights and resistance and/or the boycott of Israel, he automatically labels “anti-Semitic bigots who know nothing about the Middle East.” In contrast, President Jimmy Carter once noted that Alan Dershowitz knows nothing about the plight of the Palestinians. Of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s assessment of the role of the Zionist lobby in the U.S., Dershowitz says their position is “one-sided” and these authors are themselves “liars” and “bigots.” Letting his anger get the better of him when it comes to Israel, Dershowitz often employs the tactic of switching subjects. So if a defender of the Palestinians brings up Israeli human rights violations, Dershowitz wants to talk about Arab persecution of homosexuals. He is notorious for trying to shout down opponents and for making satirical asides to the audience. In other words, the famous and successful trial lawyer seems incapable of arguing calmly and objectively about a subject to which he is passionately attached, Israel. Here he has also obviously lost touch with his father’s advice about the defending the underdog.

Among the many folks who have brought out the pugnacious, name-calling side of Alan Dershowitz is Susan Abulhawa. On October 16, 2010 the two found themselves on the same stage at the Boston Book Fair. They were there to discuss their respective novels that deal with Palestine, for Mr. Dershowitz has also written one entitled The Trials of Zion (Grand Central Publishing 2010) which he tells us describes peace coming to the Holy Land only to be sabotaged by Muslim fanatics. Due to Dershowitz’s essential pugnacity he proved incapable of sparing Ms Abulhawa, or the audience, the darker side of his nature. Because Mornings in Jenin depicts the Palestinians as having rights taken away from them by Zionist Jews, Deshowitz was soon labeling Abulahawa an “extremist” and her book a “barrier to peace.”

3. Bernard-Henri Levy is a French philosopher and journalist. He was born in 1948 to a wealthy family of colons in Algeria who are also Sephardic Jews. Levy grew up in France after his family left Algeria along with most of the pre-independence European community. One can surmise that Levy’s family background left him with a distaste for Arab society and a strong Eurocentric preference. This has translated into an equally strong support for Israel.

As is the case with Alan Dershowitz, the Israel that Levy supports is an idealized state that is hard to recognize if your are not a true believer in the Zionist paradigm. Thus, in his recent essay, “The Antisemitism to Come,” Levy insists that Israel is “the sole democracy in the Middle East.” What of Turkey and Lebanon? They are invisible to Levy. He goes on to assert that Israel is “the only state in the region where political differences can be solved by compromise.” The fact that 20% of Israel’s population (the non-Jewish part) has an historically demonstrated zero chance of a compromise settlement of its differences with the discriminatory policies of the state is, apparently, not part of Levy’s conception of things. Criticism of Israel based on these and other problems is interpreted by him as “the demonization of Israel.” It must be so, because, in Levy’s world the problems do not exist and Israel’s leaders and Jewish population are open to “any and all concessions.” Thus, the critics must be motivated by something other than genuine grievances. Their real motivation must be “the most irrational, the craziest, and the most rabid of hatreds.” Levy, and Dershowitz too, are good examples of the fact that intelligence in one sphere of life does not prevent the failure of intelligence in another.

And who does Levy include among the irrational and crazy haters of Israel? Well, for one, he points to Susan Abulhawa and her novel, Mornings in Jenin. For most reviewers Abulhawa’s novel is a “fine” and “unforgettable” story (The Independent UK 8 March 2010). For Levy it is “a concentration of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish cliches masquerading as fiction.” Did he actually read the book? If he did, he was incapable of getting past the fact that his heros were heros no longer. When it comes to Israel there is really no debate for Levy and Dershowitz. There can be no criticism, no censure, that is not essentially anti-Semitic. They can get away with this sort of malignant reductionism because the balance of power is presently on their side.

Susan Abulhawa has successfully stood up to both these men. She has told Alan Dershowitz, to his face, that his behavior is “unbecoming of a Harvard Professor.” And, in the Huffington Post, she tells Levy that his irresponsible use of the term anti-Semitism “besmirches the memory of those who were murdered in death camps solely for being Jewish.” One can add here, so does the Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians solely because they are not Jewish.

The behavior of those who claim to represent and/or defend a cause is often a small window into the nature of those causes. It is interesting to note that most of those in the West who serve as spokespersons for the Palestinians are recognizably rational and analytical. That does not mean they are without passion, but it does mean that they have a grasp on reality. They do not advocate “kicking the Jews into the sea,” but rather they fight for Palestinian rights so that the Israelis cannot kick the indigenous population of the “Holy Land” into bantustans. And, like Susan Abulhawa, they base their claims of Palestinian rights on the broader claims of human rights. In contrast, the spokespersons in the West for Israel, such as Alan Dershowitz and Bernard-Henri Levy, are often incapable of rational debate. They quickly retreat to name-calling–their favorite epithet being “anti-Semite.” They are not very analytical either for, when it comes to Israel, things appear in black and white format. Theirs is a zero sum game.

It is a stark tragedy that, as of the moment, power is the deciding factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For, as history teaches us, power has little regard for fairness, justice, morality, and decent futures. If you want insight into these sort of things you best consult the work of Susan Abulhawa, for you will not find them in the words of her critics.

LAWRENCE DAVIDSON can be reached at: LDavidson@wcupa.edu

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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