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My Palestinian mother was like Baltimore’s Toya Graham

In the first Intifada, my mother recognized the need to resist but she also wanted to keep her daughter safe — so she locked the doors and hid the keys. But if we are to be consistent, shouldn’t police officers’ mothers be responsible for stopping brutality? Shouldn’t Israeli soldiers’ mothers put a stop the arrests and mistreatment of Palestinian children?

By Nadia Naser-Najjab

The image of Toya Graham berating her own son and pulling him away from confrontations between police and protestors in Baltimore, where police brutality has sparked violent protests, resonated so deeply for me. I had witnessed this scene before, in my own family.

After the first Intifada broke out in 1987, the Israeli government responded to a wave of strikes, protests and demonstrations with direct violence (Yitzhak Rabin, who was the Israeli defense minister at the time, famously ordered the army to ‘break the bones’ of Palestinian protestors). Palestinians, including children, were routinely subject to beatings and arbitrary detention. In forcibly repressing a largely non-violent uprising, Israeli soldiers killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and left tens of thousands with life-changing injuries.

During this period it was my own mother who was remonstrating with my teenage sister, who had joined protests that sought to challenge the Israeli occupation. My mother’s reaction might well come as something of a shock to those external observers who — upon the basis of decontextualized depictions of Palestinian mothers celebrating their children’s martyrdom — have come to believe that Palestinians hate Israel and Israelis more than they love their own children.

According to that (mis)representation, Palestinian parenting practices — and not the political context of dispossession, brutalization and occupation — are to blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Read also: Testimonies from detained Palestinian children

Of course that idea, made famous by Golda Meir, is nothing but a dehumanising and grossly offensive slur. Palestinian mothers and fathers have always been torn between their commitment to the broader Palestinian cause and their love for their own children. My father once told me that he would have a heart attack if I was arrested. However, both he and my mother risked arrest when they joined a protest after the funeral of a 10-year-old child who had been killed while playing in my home village of Burqa.

My mother recognized the need to resist and to fight for a better future but she also wanted to prevent her daughter from ending up in prison or the morgue. So she locked the doors and hid the keys. She once told me that I would not understand until I was a mother myself. She was partially right. Becoming a mother has helped me to understand the dilemmas she faced, but I still struggle with the tension between my heart and my head.

The selective condemnation of violence

In asking ourselves whether we would act in the same way as Toya Graham, we should first ask whether we believe that victims should be held to the same moral standards as perpetrators. This is the deeply insidious (and familiar) proposition that is being advanced when we are told by governments, whose very basis of authority lies in the ability to inflict and perpetrate violence, that violence should be universally condemned.

I would therefore be inclined to suggest that this duality is related to Toya Graham’s sudden rise to fame. Aside from performing her obligations as a mother she has also, in preventing harm being inflicted upon others, fulfilled her civic duty. We are all therefore invited to join the likes of Golda Meir in the comforting illusion that, if more mothers were like Toya the world would be a better, safer and more harmonious place.

However, surely, if we wished to be consistent, we would go further than this. Is there not an obligation for all parents to prevent their children from inflicting harm on others? Would it not, then, be morally imperative for a police officer’s mother to disarm her son as he inflicts a brutal and sadistic beating? Or for the mother of an Israeli soldier to prevent her son from arresting and torturing children?

Read +972’s special coverage: Children Under Occupation

These questions may well seem absurd, but that is mainly because we have become so habitualized to state violence that we conflate legal or political justifications with a moral ones. The irony is that, under these circumstances, the selective condemnation of specific instances of violence  — whether perpetrated by black American protestors or Palestinians — ultimately contributes, to a greater or lesser extent (as in the case of Toya Graham), to the perpetuation of a political order that is itself based upon indirect and direct forms of violence.

The problem is violence itself

As a Palestinian, I am familiar with a state of affairs in which I am expected to disavow and disown violence, and then acquiesce to the perpetuation of broader structures and relations of violence: this expectation has essentially sustained the last 20 years of the ‘peace process.’

Taking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a reference point, I would be inclined to suggest that the real issue is the (deeply rooted) tendency to conceive of violence as a problem in itself, rather than as a symptom of prior injustices. To conceive of violence in its immediate proximity is to legitimize the broader forms of violence (direct and indirect, immediate and structural) embedded and embodied within the status quo.

I would like to offer an initial suggestion as to why the Toya Graham story has suddenly achieved such prominence. This is a classic human-interest story, in which the protagonist, acting upon the basis of a human impulse, has restored our faith in a shared humanity. Of course this ascription ignores the actual reality. Toya acted the way she did because of a sentiment that is by no means common to all Americans, let alone all humans: namely that her son, like so many Americans of the same skin color, would die as a consequence of state violence.

In this instance, as is so often the case, the subtext is more significant than the ostensible point of reference. In engaging with the Toya Graham story, we are invited to celebrate that most natural of impulses with which all mothers can identify: the desire to protect their children from harm. However, in focusing upon a mother’s act of ‘heroism,’ we allow ourselves to turn away from the broader context of the act, and to effectively legitimize broader structures of violence. That, I would be inclined to suggest, is the real story emerging from Baltimore.

Dr. Nadia Naser-Najjab, PhD in Middle East Studies, and at present an Associate Research Fellow at the European Center of Palestine Studies-Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. Her research work is related to Palestine and the Palestine-Israel conflict.

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    1. Dutch Oven

      Annoying how the Palistinians try to co-opt the American AA struggle into their own. No comparison.

      All the Palesrinians need to agree to is 2 states for 2 people. What could be easier?.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        You left out “and Israelis” after “Palestinians.” I guess you forgot. Oh and I’m so glad you told us you have this idea that the Palestinians don’t agree to 2 states for 2 peoples because, miraculously, you are wrong!


        How about that?! I’m sure you’ll be so glad to know you’ve been laboring under a delusion all these years. I would if I thought the moon was made of green cheese and I suddenly found out I was wrong. I’d say, “hey, thanks fellah, I had no idea, whew, now I can stop saying stupid stuff, and I can put into practice the American President’s ‘Don’t do stupid stuff.’ Cool!”

        Reply to Comment
        • Dutch Oven

          No Brian.. That article does not say 2 states for 2 peoples. You got confused by some translatin issues where the word nation is used. Anyway, 2S42P means no pRoR. And that subject is not even broached. #brianfails.

          Reply to Comment
    2. PedroX

      From what Planet is Nadia Naser-Najjab? Oh, the University of Exeter. Nadia states

      “In forcibly repressing a largely non-violent uprising, Israeli soldiers killed more than 1,000 Palestinians”

      The first intifada, according to B’tselem, claimed 179 Israeli lives. 3100 were injured. Palestinians also killed (executed mostly) almost 1000 Palestinians. Jewish Virtual Library states:

      “The intifada was violent from the start. During the first four years of the uprising, more than 3,600 Molotov cocktail attacks, 100 hand grenade attacks and 600 assaults with guns or explosives were reported by the Israel Defense Forces. The violence was directed at soldiers and civilians alike.”

      “The PLO-dominated Unified Leadership of the Intifada (UNLI), for example, frequently issued leaflets dictating which days violence was to be escalated, and who was to be its target.”

      “the number of Arabs killed for political and other reasons by Palestinian death squads exceeded the number killed in clashes with Israeli troops.”

      “Palestinians were stabbed, hacked with axes, shot, clubbed and burned with acid. The justifications offered for the killings varied. In some instances, being employed by Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank and Gaza was reason enough; in others, contact with Jews warranted a death sentence. Accusations of “collaboration” with Israel were sometimes used as a pretext for acts of personal vengeance. Women deemed to have behaved “immorally” were also among the victims.”

      “PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat defended the killing of Arabs deemed to be “collaborating with Israel.” He delegated the authority to carry out executions to the intifada leadership.”

      In the first intifada Palestinians sent their children to the front of riots while other children threw rocks and Molotov cocktails and men shot and threw grenades from behind them. Palestinian society praised the transformation of its children into combatants during the first Intifada, dubbing them fondly “the children of the rocks.” Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet laureate, wrote a poem after the outbreak of the first Intifada, which sanctioned and sanctified their deaths, and praised “Arab youth on the road to victory, each with a coffin on his shoulder.”

      Daniella Ashkenazy in 1990 wrote:

      “However these child victims of the Intifada are not targets. They are weapons. Few … in the West stop to ask – Who sends children to the front with coffins on their shoulders and potentially lethal projectiles in their hand?”

      Israeli peace advocate Aharon Megged wrote during the first Intifada:

      “Not since the Children’s Crusade in 1212 … has there been a horror such as this – no people, no land where adults send children age 8-9 or 14-15 to the front, day-after-day, while they themselves hide in their houses or go out to work far-far away. They continue, and send them time-after-time, and don’t stop them even when they know they are liable to be killed, maimed, beaten or arrested.”

      In the second intifada Mathew Kalman documented the use of Palestinian children in the conflict. On December 11, 2000 he quoted Palestinians to document the use of children:

      “the decision to put children on the front line is being carried out by officials from the Palestinian Authority security forces and the militia of Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement.

      “When school finishes, Palestinian Authority security cars go around collecting children from the streets and sending them to the killing fields,”

      “The Tulkarm Women’s Union sent a rare letter of protest to Mr. Arafat last week demanding he stop using children as cannon fodder.

      “Our children are being sent into the streets to face heavily armed Israeli soldiers,” the letter says. “. . . We urge you to issue instructions to your police force to stop sending innocent children to their death.”

      IN USA Today another Palestinian was quoted by Kalman:

      “No one here dares to say publicly that he is against sending his own
      children to the front line,Some parents who have tried to
      protest have been condemned as fifth columnists (traitors) and threatened.”

      Arab writer Lebanese columnist Hoda Husseini in Al Sharq al-Awsat on October 25, 2000 condemned the Palestinian leadership “What kind of enlightened independence will rise on the blood of the children, while the leaders, [and] their [own] children and grandchildren, are sheltered?”

      Hafiz Barghouthi, the editor of Arafat’s PA daily Al Hayat al-Jadida, celebrated the role of children as the “shock troops” of Palestinian liberation. On October 27, 2000 Barghouthi wrote that preventing one’s children from participating in protests constitutes “one of the most severe transgressions” which “harm us more than the bullets” of Israel. He called parents who would not sacrifice their children as traitors.

      In 15 years nothing has changed. Palestinians continue to send their kids to the front lines of violent riots. Hamas trains children to be terrorists. In the West Bank children continue to be sent to Jihad camps. Palestinian media continues to broadcast that the highest achievement a Palestinian child can attain is to be a martyr.

      If Palestinian parents protected their children and kept them away from the front lines of the conflict, the adult sons and daughters of Israelis would not have arrest or use force towards Palestinian children.

      Reply to Comment
    3. New Relic

      Texas 2 : Islamic Terrorists 0

      Reply to Comment
    4. Noevil

      Very responsible and clear message of civil responsibility, duties and justice for victims as well as perpetrating police and government agency in maintaining order and peace. The sad part,Israel as an occupier and a military has used murder, jail,expelling and breaking bones of the Palestinians as their standard policy of control to break their spirit and hopes while it disposes them from their freedom, homes and land if not lives! The new world order today is very similar.

      Reply to Comment