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March 12th, 2015 (13 Comments)
This past Monday night, I participated in a panel debate at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. The panel consisted of five Jewish Americans and me, a Palestinian American. The audience was almost entirely Jewish, with a couple Palestinians. Somehow, my eyes found them immediately. Basically, it was about two hundred Jews and three of us. It reminded me of my numerous flights to Tel Aviv.
We were discussing the upcoming elections in Israel, and I was asked to speak in light of the emergence of the Joint Arab List, a new force in Israeli politics that has consolidated the once-fragmented Arab parties into one new group. (Yes, I’m a comedian, but I can speak in full sentences as well.) This new faction is expected to win a significant amount of seats in next week’s elections.
The event was organized by Michigan’s chapter of the Zionist Organization of America. Now, before my BDS friends lose their minds, I was not “normalizing.” During my opportunities to speak, I heavily criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians (in every corner of historic Palestine), its policies of ethnic supremacy, the recent murderous war on Gaza, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s sensationalizing of the Iran issue. I was not muzzled in any way, and if I had at any point felt like I was, I would have left. I got booed a couple of times, but I’m a comedian, so I’m used to that.
I openly condemned Israel at every turn, and I did it with a smile. I didn’t yell and scream. I even cracked a few jokes. When the panel was wrapping up and the moderator asked each of us to take one last stab at swaying the crowd to our positions, I said, “I feel like someone trying to sell an air conditioner in Michigan in January.” That was the first time I ever got a crowd of Jews to laugh, unless you count my numerous strip-searches at Tel Aviv airport. I still have flashbacks of them chuckling, “Wow, that’s a lot of hair.”
The hosts of the event were very generous, and they thanked me for my participation. Many audience members wanted to get a word in with me before I left the hall. I happily obliged. I guess I just love attention, in any form. Most of those who spoke with me expressed their appreciation of my attendance. I thought that was weird. After all, I had openly bashed just about every Israeli policy. But I guess my use of honey instead of vinegar had paid off.
Then, a very nice middle-aged woman approached me and said, “Thanks for coming. I wish there were more like you.” I said, quickly and stupidly, “Thank you.” And then I left.
As I drove away, I started to feel a little strange. Just a few minutes earlier, I was euphoric. I had entered the lion’s den and presented the Palestinian case. I should have felt like a champion, right? But then it hit me. A Jewish woman, one who was sympathetic and appreciative of my presence, could say nothing more than, “I wish there more like you.”
I guess I now know how Colin Powell must have felt when white Americans said he “speaks so well.” Or how Barack Obama must feel when white Americans call him “eloquent,” “articulate,” and “intellectual.” These statements all masquerade as enlightened and flattering utterances, when they are instead based on deeply bigoted assumptions.
In this woman’s world, Palestinians were not like me. As a matter of reality, however, I’m not that rare. But to her, it was like she was watching the Discovery Channel, seeing a nonviolent, articulate, smiling Palestinian for the first time. I have met thousands of my people, and just about each and every one of them is a nonviolent, articulate, smiling Palestinian. But to this woman, I was entirely unique. However, again, when it comes to being a nonviolent, articulate, smiling Palestinian, I am entirely unexceptional. I know I am saying “nonviolent, articulate, smiling Palestinian” a lot, but it obviously needs to be repeated.
This very nice Jewish woman in Michigan, most probably, had never met a Palestinian before. She couldn’t have. If she had, she would have clearly known that most of us are, in fact, of the nonviolent, articulate, smiling type. (Ok, I’ll stop.)
In truth, I felt sorry for her. It must be terrible to wake up every morning thinking that every Palestinian wishes her nothing short of annihilation simply because of her Jewishness. Sure, we have some crazies, and we have even more non-Palestinian crazies that sometimes latch on to our cause. But those crazies are violent, inarticulate, and frowning. Most of us Palestinians are nonviolent, articulate, and smiling (Oops, I did it again).
Let me stop here and say something pretty clearly (as I’m socially obliged). We Palestinians don’t hate Jews. We’re not hateful. Well, might hate the policies of Israel. We also definitely hated getting kicked out of our homes back in 1948 and 1967 (and still today). We also really hate when Israeli politicians celebrate bombing our children in Gaza. Ok, so I guess we do hate a few things. It makes you wonder how we can stay so nonviolent, articulate, and smiling.
But we don’t hate Jews. We can tell the difference between Israel and Jews. And do you know how we can tell the difference? Because we are familiar with the diversity of Jewish voices when it comes to Israel. Sure, we know the racism and aggression of Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Bennet. We are acquainted with the milder (yet still racist) voices of Herzog and Livni. But we are also quite aware of the Jewish voices that cry out for justice, as represented by individuals like Finkelstein, Chomsky, and Peled, and groups like Jewish Voice for Peace.
There are thousands of Jewish-American activists fighting for equality between Palestinians and Jews in Israel, much to the disapproval of the Israeli government and many of their fellow American Jews. We are conscious of them. We break bread with them. In fact, I have my own particular attachment to Jewish culture. I live in Dearborn, the Arab-American capital, and my favorite place to eat is Mati’s Deli, a Jewish-owned establishment. I’m there at least twice a week. The corned beef sandwich on rye is really unparalleled. If sharia law ever does overtake Dearborn, I hope they allow this place to stay open.
We Palestinians don’t hate Jews. Sure, our association with them is full of twists and turns. If our relationship were on Facebook, its label would be “It’s complicated.” But we have been familiar with Judaism and Jews since way before Israel ever showed up on our doorstep. Despite Israel’s continued attempts to displace us and destroy our culture, we don’t hate all Jews. Saying that Israel represents all Jews is like saying that the Mafia represented all Catholics. We can tell the difference between a rogue establishment and an entire group of people. It’s Benjamin Netanyahu who can’t.
Now, I think I have fulfilled my weekly quota of repeating “I don’t hate all Jews.”
I hope the woman who wished that there were “more like me” can bring herself to accept the humanity of Palestinians. Because when she says, “I wish there more like you,” she is telling me that she has bought the Israeli narrative about us. Make no mistake. It has been a leading strategy of Israel to dehumanize our existence, in order to justify her actions against us over the past 70 years. She has said that we don’t love life, that we are no more worthy of rights than insects, and that we in fact don’t exist at all. I remember another middle-aged Jewish woman who once said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” She was the prime minister of Israel.
If I learned anything Monday night, it was that there are way too many American Jews who still see us as Golda Meir did back then. We are not human beings to them. We are unfeeling animals. Our humanity, when on full display, surprises them. And that scares the hell out of me.
However, notwithstanding all of this, I am glad to be every American Jew’s “Palestinian friend.” I will continue to tell them all that it wasn’t cool that Israel stole our land, our rights, our history, and even our cuisine. I’ll continue to be a Palestinian in every form, even it makes them a little uncomfortable.
So, I will visit the Jewish Community Center as long as I’m invited. In fact, if you are an American Jew and have never met a real-life Palestinian (and it seems that there might be a lot of you), I volunteer to be the first one. And I have a lot of friends who can be your second, third, and fourth acquaintances. And I can promise that they will not hate you. In fact, they will all be nonviolent, articulate, and smiling.