I recall, with particular awkwardness, my first talk at a socialist student gathering at the University of Washington in Seattle nearly two decades ago. When I tried to offer an authentic view of the situation in Palestine from the viewpoint of a refugee, my hosts were hardly impressed.
However, the head of the student group knew how to move the crowd. He spoke of Palestinian and Israeli proletariat classes, which, according to him were ultimately fighting against the same enemy, the neoliberal capitalist elites shamelessly subduing the working classes in both Palestine and Israel. But what the audience loved the most was his sweeping statements about the working classes of Algeria, Congo and South America that were somehow all magically tied back to Palestine.
My comments that the Histadrut (General Organisation of Workers in the Land of Israel) was actually a racially-constructed trade-union enterprise – didn’t go well with the crowd. Since its establishment in 1920, the Histadrut advocated Jewish labour rights and did its utmost to exclude their supposed Arab comrades. A powerful institution, it eventually grew to become the hub of Labour Zionism, responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, labourers and all, and the establishment of Israel over the ruins of Palestine.
I was never asked to speak to that particular socialist group again, though with time I began realising that the issue was far more complex. It has little to do with socialism and labour rights, and much to do with my own Palestine-centred narrative. With time I realised that as a Palestinian, regardless of the kind of platform of expression that was available, I could only fit into a fixed space with perfectly prearranged dimensions.
Eventually, I discovered that the issue was far-reaching and involved. I learned that most consequential decisions in the United States Congress regarding Palestine and Israel are taken after protracted investigations that rarely involve Palestinians. Those who often testify before Congressional committee hearings are mostly Israelis, US foreign policy experts and pro-Israeli lobbyists, more or less, all advocating the interests of Israel; that the permissible space in mainstream media is so incredibly limited, especially for genuine Palestinian voices; that even solidarity conferences and meetings pertaining to Palestine rarely represent Palestinians, but an imagined version of Palestinian priorities based on the predetermined agenda of the organisers.
The Media Palestinian
In that limited public space, not all Palestinians are able to participate. And those who are allowed access, must meet specific criteria. In American media, for example, two types of Palestinians are allowed entry: The status quo Palestinian and the adversarial Palestinian.
The first, often affiliated with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and/or a Washington DC think-tank, are paraded in a misleading display of balance and objectivity. The fact that they represent specific political interests that unite Washington, Tel Aviv and Ramallah, and rarely reflect a representative view that is common among most Palestinians, matters little.
The “adversarial” Palestinian is that who is invited to speak to the media, only to be chastised publically. No matter how well-reasoned, grounded and informed their arguments and views, this Palestinian is positioned as the enemy, thus becoming the target of angry hosts. When the executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, the eloquent Yousef Munayyer tried to provide some context to Israel’s war on Gaza, Fox News Sean Hannity found the mere idea of someone intelligibly disagreeing with the Israeli viewpoint unacceptable.
“Is Hamas a Terrorist Organisation?! What part of this cannot you get through your thick head,” Hannity screamed with rage.
Being the subject of verbal abuse on live television, Munayyer asked: “Do I get to say anything in this conversation?”
Of course not.
The Troublesome Palestinian
When Arab-American Professor Steven Salaita was fired from his new position at the University of Illinois over tweets motivated by Israel’s bloody war on Gaza, few were truly surprised. The room for dissent within American academia can be quite open, but for Palestinians, there is an exception. While much of the pro-Israeli propaganda in the US is initiated by professors openly affiliated with respected universities, the situation is quite different for Palestinians and their supporters.
The targeting of Palestinian and non-Palestinian professors for their failure to stay within the confines of what is and is not allowed regarding the Palestine-Israel discourse is nothing new. Campus Watch was in fact founded with the very aim to isolate and intimidate professors who dare veer off the assigned script that allows for nonconformist views on Israel and its “special relationship” with the US.
Students are encouraged to record and report professors whose lectures may be interpreted as critical of Israel. But a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict taught by Columbia College Professor, Iymen Chehade was cancelled, despite its popularity with students. The course was a platform for various voices involved in the conflict, yet was reported by a student to the administration as “biased,” leading to its cancellation. This type of censorship, aimed exclusively at controlling the narrative on Palestine and Israel, is not common in other academic subjects.
The Alternative Palestinian
Then, there is the alternative Palestinian. He can be a (self-proclaimed) Palestinian whose speech is particularly useful and perfectly suits media agenda. A phenomena of “repentant Palestinian terrorists” became more common after the attacks of 11 September, 2001, where pro-Israelis in government and media were desperate to link Palestinians to American’s so-called “war on terror.” Characters such as “ex-terrorist” Walid Shoebat, with fantastically phony stories, were introduced to the US public regularly through US media as anti-terrorism experts.
The alternative “Palestinian” as a money-seeking con-artist is part of larger saga involving Arabs and Muslims, who fabricated their own cleverly tailored personal narratives that feed on stereotypical racist discourses.
The Token Palestinian
The Palestinian narrative can be moulded in so convenient a way as to satisfy various agendas, even conflicting ones. The “non-violent” Palestinian advocate is usually offered to juxtapose the masked Palestinian fighter, whose narrative is simply too much for a western audience to grasp or accept.
A Palestinian can also be offered as a token at all sorts of gatherings that purport to discuss Palestine. I have attended conferences throughout the years – only to discover that at various meetings, my presence and those of my peers were to serve exactly that role: a token. The token Palestinian is expected to be docile and should in no way be involved in setting the agenda. The token should simply be there and allow whomever is behind the gathering to exploit his presence in anyway deemed suitable, be it for fundraising purposes or for political gain.
The Palestinian Witness
Following Israel’s latest war on Gaza which killed nearly 2,200 and wounded over 11,000 that were mostly civilians, conferences are being held across the globe in solidarity with Palestine. While some of these conferences are organised based on a clear set of Palestinian priorities with the aim of prompting action, others tend to be mostly symbolic, with equally symbolic Palestinian presence.
In these gatherings, few Palestinians are exhibited to describe violent events during the war; however, once tears are shed, it’s the all-knowing westerner who often takes charge of articulating the discourse in its various intellectual, legal, political and others aspects, thus defining the parameters of the discussion and prescribing the solution.
In the post-Edward Said Palestinian intellectual landscape, however, it is unfathomable that Palestinians are largely excluded from shaping their own discourse, or are used as convenient fodder in someone else’s.
This is not an exclusively Palestinian issue. Far from it. But rather the role through which the western intellectual spaces continue to operate in relation to other nations. In the case of Palestinians, however, the problem is compounded by the fact that the exclusion of a real Palestinian narrative is also cemented by those who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. However, their sympathies are conditioned, although at times inadvertently, on excluding the Palestinian from his own story.
Ramzy Baroud is a PhD scholar in People’s History at the University of Exeter. He is the Managing Editor of Middle East Eye. Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).