The following is the Keynote Address delivered by Dr Rima Khalaf at the Palestine Book Awards 2020.
Dr Khalaf served as the minister for several Jordanian ministries between 1993-2000; was Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) from 2010 to 2017; and is currently the President of the Global Organisation Against Racial Discrimination and Segregation.
I thank the Palestine Book Award Committee for inviting me to speak at this special and inspiring event. One of the things that makes our event uniquely special is its focus on a subject that was until recently under siege in most of the Western world. Trying to publish a book on Palestine there, particularly one critical of Israel, was for many, a frustrating undertaking, if not a futile one.
Alan Hart had to set up his own company to publish the first edition of his book: “Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews”. UK publishers were too frightened to associate with his book because of, as Hart put it, “fear of offending Zionism … and, possibly, finding themselves on the receiving end of an organized boycott of all their authors and titles”.
Translating a book into English was equally hard if it included anything that may seem to tarnish the image of Israel. Even senior Israeli politicians were not spared such censorship. Avraham Burg wrote his book “The Holocaust is Over We must Rise from its Ashes” in Hebrew. When he wanted to publish an English version, American editors thought it was too critical of Israel for their taste. They made “some smart cuts”, according to the New York Times, deleting (and I quote) “some of his more alarming assertions in the Hebrew one”.
Suppressing and censoring books, analyses, facts and information pertaining to Palestine was a tool to ensure the dominance of the Zionist narrative. Hiding the truth about racist Israeli policies and inhumane practices against the Palestinians was crucial for maintaining the support of a public often beholden to the values of fairness and human rights.
Over the past 72 years, Israel has been frequently condemned by multilateral bodies, including the United Nations Security Council, for its flagrant violations of the UN charter, international human rights law, and international humanitarian law. It has perpetrated horrendous crimes against the Palestinians, some of which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. It has further established an institutionalized system of racial segregation and discrimination that oppresses all Palestinians and maintains the dominance of Jewish Israelis, over them.
This system was thoroughly examined in 2017 by a United Nations ESCWA report, which concluded that Palestinians, wherever they lived, share in common the experience of racial oppression by Israel. The authors of the report affirmed that the weight of the evidence supported beyond a reasonable doubt that Israel is guilty of the crime of Apartheid. All Palestinians suffer discrimination and inferior rights, for the sole reason that they were not born Jewish.
The strategic goal of the Zionist movement has always been the establishment of an ethnically pure Jewish state on all of Palestine. Its leaders knew that achieving such a goal would require it to commit atrocious crimes including ethnic cleansing. They didn’t mind that. In fact, they, including Ben Gurion, actively advocated it. Though he would not say as much in public, Ben Gurion’s position and intentions were clear in what he wrote to his son Amos, and I quote, “We must expel the Arabs and take their places… and if we have to use force… we have force at our disposal”.
The Zionist movement also knew that revelations of such acts could be costly. Hence, it worked on suppressing the truth whenever possible. It simultaneously worked on developing and propagating an alternative truth that can be sold to an uninformed public.
To market settler colonialism, oppression, and apartheid to a world weary of all, Zionism had to invent a new narrative – a false narrative that would normalize the abnormal, legitimize the blatantly illegal, and justify the morally repugnant. Zionist leaders understood early on that it wasn’t enough to win military conflicts. They also had to win the conflict of narratives which in the past proved to have a bigger effect on the trajectory of human history.
In this respect, Zionism, itself a product of European colonialism, learned valuable lessons from European colonial powers who had concocted the discourse of the civilizing mission of the White Man to legitimize their hegemony over other peoples of the world.
Those powers, particularly the British and French Empires looked for precedents in their histories, for ancestors to be heirs to, to pursue their colonialist ventures in faraway lands. The great empires they found in antiquity were neither English nor French; they were Greek and Roman. Therefore, Rome and Greece had to be re-invented in a European guise to provide these new colonial Empires with legitimate ancestry. In that aspect, neoclassicism was a re-invention of the past with imperialist intentions, rather than a resurrection of it.
Zionism, a legitimate child of such 19th century European ideas and practices, needed, likewise, to come up with a legitimizing narrative. It had to reinvent Judaism and Jewry to fit its purposes, and it did. All of a sudden, the Jewish portion of Palestine’s history became the history of Europeans of the Jewish faith. Accordingly, the European Jews became the “rightful” heirs to the land of Palestine.
This alternative history would portray their invasion of Palestine, as a ‘just’ war to reclaim what is theirs. And although still illegal under international law, it would depict their dispossession and uprooting of Palestinians as an unfortunate, yet justifiable necessity, for exercising their “legitimate” return to their land.
This false narrative was needed to beautify what under any other circumstance would look ugly and appalling. It was also necessary to harness the religious feelings of European Jews and give their narrative priority over the religious feelings or national rights of anyone else involved.
Hence, narrative was of the utmost importance in the construction of the state of Israel and the consequent dispossession, oppression, and subjugation of the Palestinian people.
While the balance of power might have allowed the victors of the First World War to occupy Palestine; narrative was necessary to harness the emotional capital of European Jews to drive them to settle in Palestine.
Guns were necessary for the occupation, but narrative was necessary for settlement and colonization.
Yet weak narratives cannot deconstruct their antitheses. Hence the Palestinian narrative, the fact-based, common-sense narrative, had to be suppressed, negated, and vilified.
Palestinian books, Palestinian stories, Palestinian poems unveil the truth. They show that the physical expression of the triumph of Zionism is an affront to the dignity of the peoples of the region, and a direct threat to their very existence. By highlighting the truth, they reassure the people that their struggle is legitimate, and that history is on their side.
While the current imbalance of power makes hope in justice look faint, it is in the emotional capital, the rational determination, and the inherent will to survive among the peoples of the region, that real hope lives.
People do not produce art and histories in order to convince others of their worthiness. They do that to reaffirm such worthiness to their own selves against the onslaught of racist realities that keep telling them otherwise. The conquerors institute laws to keep the conquered down; they create entire realities for children to grow up believing they are lesser than others. Everything a Palestinian sees is meant to tell him that he is weak, that he is unable to defend himself against injustice or transgression.
This is true of a Palestinian citizen of Israel, who belongs to a country whose very name and flag alienate and dispossess him, and whose laws blatantly discriminate against him.
This is true of the Palestinian living in the West Bank whose survival hinges on the moods and whims of 18-year-old boys and girls, bored, as teenagers often are, miss-behaved and ill-mannered but swinging M-16s.
This is true of the Palestinian living in a refugee camp, not only denied the protection of his own country but denied the protection of any country at all, as if his very existence has no place in the socio- political arrangement of the world!
All Palestinians, regardless of their current abode, are subject to Israel’s racist and oppressive policies. Their children grow up in this institutionalized violence, this normalized crime where everything around them tells them that they are worthless, of no means or consequence.
Art therefore is necessary. It gives power to the oppressed; they produce it to assure themselves that their humanity has not been tarnished by the violence imposed on them, that they did not succumb to it, and that in fighting monsters they did not become monsters themselves.
Books and narratives hold mirrors to people’s faces, and as millions look into the mirror of their arts and histories, they recognize the similarities among their faces. Each one of them sees himself or herself in the faces of his and her brothers and sisters. This creation of identity is, in essence, a political act…and, in the long run, it is a strategic act of resistance and liberation.
During these difficult times where the balance of power seems grossly skewed, when many Arab countries are hurrying to normalize the abnormal, to accept the unacceptable, and to make peace with a most violent transgression against human dignity and equality, writing and publishing Palestinian books is a preservation of memory and collective sanity in a mad world. It is yet another human cry asserting that people are born equal, that the religion of a certain group of people should take no supremacy over another, that the ethnic origin of a certain group of people should give them no more rights than anyone else, and that majorities and minorities should not be artificially engineered by force of arms.
I do firmly believe that the imbalance of power is temporary and that narratives live longer than the conflicts that produce them. Therefore, allow me here to make yet another point about the importance of your work: books have a generational effect.
Books document and transmit information and feelings through time better than other forms of media. We all read novels from the mid-20th century more often than we retrieve radio or video material from the same period. Books stay, like the claim of the oppressed and dispossessed. When it comes to the history of Palestine; the Palestinian presence and narrative will be that permanently-growing, all-inclusive Literary Encyclopedia, while the occupation/Apartheid’s presence and its false racist narrative will be the fleeting exclusive news bulletin full of sound and fury.
It is simply common sense that giving primacy to a militarily engineered pseudo-majority will only survive as long as the military might that maintains it. And any student of history will tell you how great a folly it is to assume the permanence of military supremacy anywhere on earth or at any moment in history! Zionism and the Apartheid system it created in Palestine are therefore unsustainable.
Being the optimist that I am, I see how the unveiling of the truth is energizing Palestinians, Arabs and people who love justice and peace all around the world. Increasing numbers of them see today the essential, unresolvable contradiction in the discourse of Zionism and the discourse of the peace process. There cannot be peace without equality and there cannot be equality with Zionism. Simply, there cannot be peace with Zionism.
Your brilliant work, through art, history and social science, delivers this message in the most forceful and effective manner possible. Thank you.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.