Writing in The New Republic, Hebrew University doctoral candidate in archeology Mishy Harman shapely criticized TEDx Ramallah describing the event as full of venomous rhetoric towards Israel and the peace process. Confessing that he was once a leftist but after the event he transformed into a Zionist leftist, Harman carefully distorts the nature of the event in order to reach the conclusion that ‘some’ on the Palestinian ‘left’ at TEDx Ramallah were calling for the end of Jewish self determination. His arguments against TEDx Ramallah primarily revolve around the Palestinian refugee issue. The refugee issue is perhaps the most salient component of the cultural, political, social and intellectual experience of the Palestinian people. Harman fails to recognize that TEDx Ramallah was a Palestinian event which explored the Palestinian narrative and did not attempt to address political solutions or Israeli concerns.
Harman’s transformation from a human rights minded leftist struggling for Palestinian rights in the face of occupation to a selfish ‘strategic’ Zionist who yearns for complete separation and the creation of an ethnically pure Jewish state is sadly based on a complete misunderstanding of the Palestinian narrative.His misunderstanding is presented in the form of half truths and misrepresentations. The following paragraph is a small slice of Harman’s handiwork in which he incorrectly describes the content of the event.
Whether it was the elderly gentleman who lamented how borders are an unnatural addition to the pristine hills of his childhood, or the Palestinian-American businessman from Youngstown, Ohio, who argued that the only just solution to the conflict is a full right of return for the Palestinian refugees of 1948, many seemed to be saying the same thing: No longer is a two state solution desirable, and one state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean is the only acceptable outcome.
Herman is here referring to the acclaimed Palestinian lawyer and writer Raja Shedadeh, who bemoaned not the borders which Israel has created (last time I checked there were no borders between Israel and the West Bank or maybe only ‘indefensible’ ones) rather the checkpoints and walls which scar the landscape. Even extremist settlers will argue, albeit to different ends, that Israel’s infrastructure of occupation in the West Bank destroys the natural beauty of the biblical scenery.
Harman goes on to describe Sam Bahour, a Palestinian born in the United States, as arguing that the only just solution of the conflict is the full right of return of Palestinian refugees. In fact, Bahour spoke eloquently about how his father, a Palestinian refugee, is not allowed to enter the country of his birth. This personal story spoke directly to the saga of many who were forced to attend TEDx Ramallah in Beirut and Amman because Israel denied them entry into the West Bank, where the event was held.
Far from arguing against the two state solution, these stories provided context and colour to the Palestinian experience. They were points of reference designed to explore the Palestinian reality, a reality based on exile and oppression. Because the event was broadcast worldwide on the Internet, the reflections of Mr. Bahour and Mr. Shedadeh provided a crucial framework from which outsiders could begin to understand the conditions under which Palestinian culture is created. I doubt that Harman would take issue with Israelis sharing their narratives of loss and tragedy such as the Holocaust in order to explain Israeli culture. Why then, are the Palestinians pandering to political aspirations when they explore their own experience?
Harman is correct that the issue of the Palestinian refugees was present in Mr. Bahour’s speech and other parts of the program. I heard him discuss of the pain of exile and how that effects Palestinian society. It was clear to me that the refugee issue formed the core political, social and cultural component of Palestinian society in the same way that return to the Land of Israel is a fundamental component of Jewish cultural, intellectual and religious existence.
Culture is not produced in a vacuum and is reflective of the historical experience of those that produce it. It seems silly to note but Harman fails to understand that Palestinians exploring the refugee issue at a cultural event are not necessarily doing so in order to bring about the end of Israel or discuss political solutions. During the entire program, I only heard Israel refereed to in passing as in the case of describing a checkpoint or an Israeli doctor. As an Israeli and as a Jew, I felt welcomed, accepted and part of the unique event. The event, quite simply, was about Palestinians and not Israel.
Harman’s reaction to what he experienced at TEDx Ramallah reflects his own insecurity regarding the intersection of liberal values and Zionism’s incompatibility with the Palestinian narrative. I understand his dilemma and it is one facing all of us, both Palestinians and Israelis. Arguing that the Palestinians are no longer interested in the two-state solution or are secretly calling for an end of Jewish self determination because they are intellectually wrestling with existence under occupation displays a mentality of domination. Palestinians have been forced to wrestle with the history of 2000 years of Jewish exile and we correctly condemn them when this history is simply written off. A deeper understanding of the refugee issue would help liberal Zionists like Harman to engage with and eventually recognize the Palestinian narrative even if they have personal reservations.
Harman’s TEDx Ramallah pickle reminds of a remarkable description of certain liberal values in Israel by an immigrant American Doctor as told to Hatim Kanaaneh in his memoir, A Doctor in the Galilee. Describing a usual intellectual transformation regarding Palestinians which takes place among American immigrants once they begin a new life in Israel, the doctor speaks almost directly to Harman’s thinking about the Palestinian narrative he encountered at TEDx.
It takes about two years from the time of immigrating to Israel for your typical Jewish liberal to convert to the local brand of liberalism and accept the general attitude of hostility to all things Arab. Expect that in the case of ‘true liberals’ such attitudes become wrapped in multiple layers of pious explanations and self righteous contortions, enough to make the racism palatable, at least to themselves. I personally prefer the settler types, the violently hostile Uzi-toting goons. They are scary enough for me to keep my distance from them and to convince myself that their views are trite and their threats ignoble. Easier to handle than the liberals’ manipulations.
Recognition of the centrality of the refugee issue to Palestinian culture does not give the right of return political legitimacy. It is a necessary step in understanding the Palestinian narrative which, if ignored, deepens the divide between Israelis and Palestinians.
Sam Bahour has sent me the following update regarding the piece.
My father is NOT a refugee (he is from smack middle of the West Bank) and STILL is not allowed to enter the country of his birth except as a US citizen and only for 3 month maximum (many times less) visits. My words were reciting what my father saw when refugees from what is now Israel showed up homeless on his West Bank yard in 1948.