"We shall not allow ourselves to despair" - Professor Albert Aghazarian
Head of the Public Relations Department, Albert Aghazarian, recently prepared a contribution to an annual booklet published by the Palestinian General Delegation to the UK and the Office of the Representation of the PLO to the Holy See entitled "Christian Voices from the Holy Land - On the Eve of the New Millenium". We reprint below Professor Aghazarian's contribution.
Afif Safieh's initiative to prepare an annual booklet to send to friends and contacts during the holiday season is a pleasantly refreshing occasion for reflection. On the most personal level, it revives childhood memories of growing up in the Old City of Jerusalem. It reminds us of what we have experienced in the last half-century or so. Where we are today, and, where we are heading.
On a Christian level, it is an occasion for us to express our deep resentment at being viewed as a minority, just as the title of Fr. Elias Chacour's book suggests, We Belong to the Land. Similarly, William Dalrymple's remarkable book, From the Holy Mountain provokes reflection into our roots that are an integral part of the Arab-Islamic and Mediterranean culture and are universal in outlook. Those interested will find this volume a valuable and fitting gift for friends during the holiday season.
RECLAIMING IDENTITY AND LIFE
Most importantly, this is an occasion for us to reclaim our dislocated lives by reconstructing and redefining a Palestinian identity of universally binding values, similar to those our parents and educators sought to inculcate in us before both Afif and I were separated and dislocated in 1967. With the increasing hardships that surround us, we feel close to the essential elements in religious and non-religious social movements. We had to convince ourselves that only dead fish swim with the current. Being dislocated, Afif and I - each in our own way - have resisted denying our Palestinian identity. This denial played an essential role in the construction of Israeli consciousness. We also resisted from adopting the prevailing idea that Israel was the progressive, righteous entity simply attacked and engulfed by the demonic evil that surrounded them.
Essentially, we were - and still are - defending our presence and our right to have a place under the sun. We are both aware of the havoc and devastation that the creation of Israel had brought into our own lives and against this blizzard of history, it is hard not to hate. Yet, we sought compromise and found hope in the continued efforts for a peaceful solution. We hoped that what began at the Madrid, Oslo and the Wye Plantation Agreements, would finally untie the knot of injustice, regardless of how cynical we are about the prospects.
MYTHOLOGY AND EXCLUSION THE REALITIES ON THE GROUND
While Palestinians have been developing a new national consciousness, the intention of Israeli policy is to fragment. It is true that Israel is divided, but the division is not a matter of two differing approaches to the Palestinian question. Rather, it is torn by conflicting approaches to Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, and with them come two sets of terminology.
On the one hand, there is the terminology of traditional religious language. On the other, is the terminology of modern liberal discourse, which also depends on theological terminology. The unfolding reality is that even for the most liberal of Israeli circles, the issue is not a long-sought historic compromise towards recognition of the Palestinians, but instead, it is about an opportunity to get rid of them and recreate the concept of "the vacant land." Zionism was to be perceived as a liberating force, free of injustice.
Over the years, the brutal reality of military occupation irrevocably tarnished Israel's self-image, which was carefully nurtured in the West. The Intifada asserted the Palestinians as an integral part of the scene, yet the Israeli establishment still chooses to deal with them as a "problem" in need of elimination. This is nothing new. Palestinians have been excluded from the Zionist vision since long before their actual expulsion in 1948 and the subsequent dispossession. The vision was never built on the principles of partnership, reciprocity, and equal rights. Even for the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his Labour Party, the idea of separation, or even the condoning of a Palestinian state did not emanate from respect and reciprocity, but rather to simply avoid the creation of a two-nation state. While every state should be founded on universal principles of liberty and equality, Israel's right-wing continues to demand the illegal expulsion of Palestinians. Netanyahu's over-arching concern for "security" masks the reality that Israel has failed to live up to its obligations in the agreements it has signed. Jewish settlements remain an unwelcome fact of Palestinian life. Israel's policy of closure has gained legitimacy as simply "security procedural measures," rather than a violation of human rights and the humiliating restriction of the freedom of movement. Bomb attacks, born amidst this atmosphere of utter desperation, work cyclically allowing Israelis access to legitimising illegal and inhumane policies.
While we should be appreciative of the encouragement and funding of peace and coexistence activities, we must also acknowledge the systematic avoidance of central issues, which allows Israel to dictate their own framework of dialogue. In the light of the supposed and hopeful break-away from the cycle of past discourse, one would hope that Israel would abandon the concept that this was an empty land. The healing process requires recognition, and not the imposition of an exclusive narrative of history, as dictated by White European Jewish immigrants.
What is especially frightening when examining the reality on the ground, is the rampant rise of extremist Israeli groups. While violence against Palestinians has gained ground among such groups, the assassinations of Rabin, and the mounting threats levelled against even Netanyahu, indicate that Israel's main security concerns should be refocused to address their own people.
Once again, biblical Judeo/Christian mythology is misleading settlers, like those in Hebron, to believe they have claimed as the true adherents of basic Zionist myths. What they are in fact doing is revealing the weaknesses and inconsistencies of the Israeli "left".
Disheartened by these realities, I discovered the importance and depth of culture. If the "peace process" and the concept of separation are based on apartheid values, then we will never steer away from this tragic path. If the Israeli "left" continues to exclude the contributions of Israelis of oriental origin and ignores harmful religious aspects of the Zionist movement, then a much needed new Israeli perspective is prevented.
CULTURE AND HOPE
Having expressed all that, I would like to point out that I am not a pessimist. While I regularly borrow Emile Habibi's coinage of "optimism," or less optimism," the fact is that my daily work is with young Palestinian university students, and I am not about to tell young people who are just taking off in their lives that what surrounds us stinks.
Birzeit University's achievements are living proof for the need of such a view. In other universities, research is conducted in line with academic teaching, but here I see the entire Birzeit University as a large sample representative of our future society. Dissidence is not only tolerated but encouraged. Muslim Bloc students together with those that lean to the left, and those who think we should give the "process" a chance, have discovered the importance of this tradition. In the midst of a national reconstruction of identity, I am amazed by the maturity of these young people in their avoidance of a detrimental polarisation.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION OF LAW
Just a few days before writing this, we inaugurated the Birzeit University Institute of Law, in the presence of the French and Qatari ministers of justice, and an impressive audience. University President Dr. Hanna Nasir, pointed out that through such efforts, we are bringing the East together with the West. It was especially moving when Dr Nasir remarked that the Institute is the highest building on campus - the implication being that nothing is higher than the power of law.
THE WONDERFUL LEGACY OF TAWFIQ CANAAN
Shortly after, we had the privilege of hosting an exhibit of the remarkable Tawfiq Canaan amulet collection, which was donated to the university. Led by his genial daughter Leila Mantoura, four generations of the Canaan family showed up. I insisted that it was actually five generations, not only because of the miraculous symbolism of the number five in amulet mythology but also because I felt the presence of Dr. Canaan. Canaan was a brilliant medical doctor, who after his graduation from the American University of Beirut in 1905 pursued a medical career while becoming the uncontestable father of Palestinian folklore, as Palestinian Minister of Culture, Yasser Abed Rabbo, and Birzeit folklore scholar Dr Sharif Kana'ane both pointed out.
In 1947, Dr Cannan's house just outside the New Gate of the Old City was taken over by Hagana forces. He had to creep through the walls and become a refugee in the Old City. His library and icon collections were pillaged, his family left stranded as scholars and remarkable contributors to many fields around the world. Having lost his only son, during an archaeological dig in the Transjordan, Tawfiq Canaan left behind no one to carry the family name. Yet, like a phoenix, he has come back to life.
Recently we had a visit from George Foulkes, British Minister for International Development, who informed us that several important projects had been approved by his government. The fruits of Mr Foulkes' visit include a series of initiatives which will assist in the creation of a viable Palestinian plan for water allocation.
THE CHALLENGE OF THE FUTURE
The university recently held an International Conference on Landscape Perspectives of Palestine, which featured thirty-two international experts, including Professor Edward Said. These are just some of the events which contribute to the revitalisation of our struggle for reconstruction of identity. Our challenge is to carry this spirit and to spread this message to Palestinian society as a whole, both on governmental and non-governmental levels. Our common future demands that we shall not allow ourselves to despair. We must persevere, but more importantly, we must rise to meet whatever obstacles may lie in our way, facing head on any complexities the future holds.