On a few occasions, my mother has awakened me anxiously to let me know who is the latest to be arrested for a Facebook statement, and to warn me from posting my views on my page. And when I tell her goodbye before my trips abroad, she responds with a warning: “Don’t get involved in politics and don’t say anything about Israel!” I always reply with an effort at humour, “My talk is about Palestinian mental health. Israel has nothing to do with mental health – it has to do with mental illness.” But my mother doesn’t relax or laugh at my attempts at reassurance. I leave quickly before I am affected by her contagious fears.
My mother is not the only one to hand over to the occupation a free service of self-censorship. There are common expressions encouraging silence in Palestine: “The walls have ears” and “Walk quietly along the wall and ask God to cover you.” Yet even worse is the clergy who maintain that “silence is a sign of acceptance” when confronted with a silent bride in a marriage ceremony. One does not need to be a psychiatrist to see that silence is more often a sign of intimidation and fear.
The Palestinian reality has silenced a few Palestinians forever, such as the writer Ghassan Kanafani and the cartoonist Naji Al-Ali who were killed on account of their opinions. Several others have been arrested for expressing their thoughts freely. The poet Dareen Tatour was convicted for her poem, “Resist, my people, resist them”, that was judged by the Israelis as an “incitement to violence”.
Yet all the while, the posts of the Israeli rapper “The Shadow” are not considered an “incitement to violence,” although one of his posts displays him holding an image of testicles accompanied by the words: “Revenge, Bibi [the nickname of Israeli Prime Minister], I think you forgot these!” In another post, the rapper calls on the Israeli army’s medical team to cut out the organs of Palestinians whom they have killed in order to donate them to the Israeli National Transplant Centre. Israel is equally tolerant of the “free speech” of the authors of “The King’s Torah”, who explain that the injunction “Thou Shall Not Kill” applies only to “a Jew who kills a Jew.” “The King’s Torah” then states that non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and attacks upon them are justified because they “curb their evil inclinations”. Similarly, the babies and children of Israel’s enemies may be killed without compunction, since “it is clear that they will grow [up] to harm Jews.”
Israelis get away with saying such things, even gaining popularity and status because of these statements. We remember in this context how Alelet Shaked as a member of the Knesset described women in Gaza as “snakes” and incited killing them during the attack of 2014. Today she is the Israeli Minister of Justice!
Recently, Lama Khater, a Palestinian journalist critical of Israel, was sent to prison in Israel – joining 22 other journalists who are likewise imprisoned. And frequently, people in Palestine are dismissed from their jobs or lose other opportunities for daring to voice political views that do not properly conform to acceptable opinions. Outside of Palestine, students whose activism focuses on Palestine are threatened in their studies and in their opportunities for employment. Even retired persons internationally who are friends of Palestine worry about the right to travel to Palestine and receive threats, such as the Jewish Brigade’s menace to scalp French activists in the Association France Palestine Solidarite.
Paradoxically, while some are harmed for speaking up, others are harmed for choosing not to speak. Among my psychiatric patients in Palestine, I have seen a woman suffering from aphonia – the loss of her voice – because intelligence forces working for the Israelis blackmailed her about her socially prohibited phone calls to her lover. A young Palestinian activist with a secret homosexual relationship was threatened with being “outed from the closet”, and intentionally inflicted with hemorrhoids and sexually transmitted diseases if he refused to collaborate with the Israelis. There were those who were injured but left to die in Gaza because they refused to inform on activists in exchange for permission to gain access to medical services outside of Gaza.
Working through silence is a daily activity in my work. I see many people with shortness of breath and chest pain – symptoms caused because they feel they are drowning in society. There are many people with sexual dysfunctions brought about because they cannot communicate openly about their relationship. There are victims of torture who are silent about their experience because they believe that reporting is hopeless or because they fear further revenge. There are depressed individuals who remain quiet about their suicidal thoughts because they anticipate rejection or fear being locked up in a hospital. I know the cost of silence, found in the pathology, acting out aggression or becoming dysfunctional.
Outside my clinic, I am always confronted with questions of safety regarding my public speaking: “Don’t you worry about going to prison, or fear that other harms will come to you because you’re speaking up and writing?” Those with less good intentions might say, “But isn’t the very fact that you are here and able to speak itself evidence that Israel is a real democracy?”
I talk – not only in order to be a coherent person, both inside and outside my professional role – but because I cannot do otherwise. I cannot pretend I do not know; I cannot deny my feelings about the political reality; I cannot turn my face the other way. I speak to protest against violence and to attempt to engage in a genuine critical dialogue with the other. This is the best that I can do in the face of an oppressive reality. Expressing my thoughts is the heartbeat of my humanity. This is the most basic right, without which no other human rights can be established.
In my work, I have seen hypochondriacal patients who act as if they are sick, out of their fear of being sick. In my daily life, I encounter people who live like the poor, out of their fear of poverty. I have seen people who are not able to communicate in their relationships, out of their fear of abandonment. I do not want to waste my opportunities as these people have done and live imprisoned in my own mind, out of fear of being thrown into a concrete prison. I do not deny that I have this fear, but I am trying to talk through it and in spite of it.
When Israel attacked Gaza in 2014, I initiated a petition calling professionals to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. I then discovered that the attack on Gaza left some collateral damage in my heart – once I saw that some close colleagues were unwilling to sign the petition and indeed pressured me to withdraw it. While I respect and empathise with the factors which may constrict the choices of many of the people around me,
I want people to stop working as unconscious, unpaid agents for Israeli authorities through their self-censorship and their pressure on others to be quiet.
I am not by nature an impulsive, risk-taking individual. In speaking out, I calculate the necessary risks and balance these risks against the benefits of achieving wider margins for freedom of expression. I sometimes consult with Israeli lawyers to ensure that my actions are not in breach of the unjust laws governing the occupation. During the First Intifada, it was illegal to hold the Palestinian flag; nowadays, it is illegal to associate with BDS. Although these two actions are just and moral, I never held a Palestinian flag and I have not joined BDS. My aim is to create alternative forms of expression that are not in breach of unjust laws – and are probably therefore more effective strategies for me.
I have always calibrated the scope of my articulated opinions with the dimensions of my professional identity and financial autonomy. Moreover, I am careful in my risk-taking that I do not implicate others. I continue to avoid deriving my personal income from Israeli institutions and remain a public employee in the Palestinian system. Clearly, being an employee, especially a public employee, is often antagonistic with free expression and over time can pollute one’s conscience and capacity to think freely. But until I am no longer employed as a public employee, I will try to maintain diversified sources of income through freelance consultations and work with more than one institution at the same time; in this way, I hope to avoid being wholly dependent upon a single employer, who can dictate my speech.
To further protect myself, I base my writings and talks on well-established facts. I share my opinions based on such facts, referring not only to Palestinian experience, but also to international human rights and universal values that are presumed to govern both Israelis and Palestinians alike. I write in foreign languages in order to recruit more witnesses to my experience. I trust that many people in solidarity will speak up on my behalf, should something bad befall me.
I am mindful as well that I have been protected by the activities of more courageous Palestinians than I, who have kept the Israelis busy with more weighty struggles than I can undertake. I count on the premise that Israeli “intelligence” that will make the judgment call that “stopping” me would be counterproductive, as it would bring more attention to the very voice that they hope to silence.
And perhaps I am simply naïve; perhaps my risk assessment is nothing more than my sophisticated denial of political threat. If that be the case, then let this article be my manifesto- a refusal to surrender the right to speak and to fall into the collective complacency of silence.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.