The Professor Dragged Her Suitcases Through the Dust at the Checkpoint, and Thought of the Underground Railroad

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 13 Comments

Israel/Palestine discussions are marked by conflict and
ferocity. No big surprise. Rarely do you come on gentleness and dignity. In
that spirit, I offer the following.

Two nights ago at Columbia they held a panel on the Nakba. There were to be four professors: the fiery Joseph Massad, a young cultural critic with a fearsome beard and an
earring who was dressed all in black, a professor of literature, and an anthropologist. The first to speak was the

anthropologist, a woman in her mid-50s, imposing, with reddish hair and a delicate
square face, wearing a fine purple knitted jacket. Her name was Lila Abu Lughod. In the midst of a career in Egyptian anthropology, she had lately published a “labor of love,” a book called simply Nakba, an investigation of people’s memories of 1948. She was going to read two sections from the

The first section was about
Rema Hammami, a friend who had gone to Israel to see her grandfather’s house in Jaffa for the first time. Evidently it was now a clinic. "In the kind of story that repeats itself among Palestinians," Hammami had wandered back through the archway in a
dream state, thrown back  into an old family photograph, “remapping the sitting room’s former reality”–when someone came up to her and addressed her in Hebrew. She responded in English and was brought to a blonde matron, who quizzed her about her bona fides before turning her over to the manager. And he, in apparent "glee," took her to a mural on the landing that pictured the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel,
the fulfillment of the Zionist dream.

Hammami said, "I was speechless at what I could
only take as a form of sadism." She said to the man, "Look, I just
wanted to look around."

The second story involved Abu Lughod’s father, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (who I found out later was a revered scholar). Expelled from
Jaffa at the age of 19 in 1948,
he had landed in Jordan, then borrowed money to go to the U.S. to get an education. He earned a Ph.D. at Princeton, became an academic. And all his adult life he refused to see his former home, refused to put himself under the authority of Israelis. Then, working on a project in Lebanon in 1982, he was driven from a place by the Israeli army for the second time in his life, an experience that left him "haunted."

And after that his mind changed. "He realized that he might die without ever seeing Palestine again." He decided to go back. He returned in 1992, in his early 60s, and went straight from the airport to Jaffa. He looked for King Faisal street but the signs were gone. Then he asked Arab children and they showed it to him; and he was pleased to find that the Arab community was keeping alive the memory of the old place.

He settled in Ramallah. He began urging his family to come back no matter the oppressions. His daughter visited in 1993. She found that he was happy, he had been embraced by his community. On the other hand he was anxious. His mouth was dry and face wet with sweat whenever he had to drive
around. He was afraid of the soldiers speaking a language he did not understand, afraid of getting lost and not being able to read signs, afraid to ask anyone for help. He took her all over historic Palestine. He saw “beyond, between
and behind" the grim reality his daughter saw to a living past. He saw orange groves from which he had stolen an orange when he was a boy. He saw the fields marked now only by cactuses. He saw the arched windows of old
Arab houses that had somehow escaped destruction.

Abu-Lughod referred to the work of
“my dear colleague” Marianne Hirsch on the Holocaust-– how a child’s memories of "the much more significant past" of one’s parents are overlaid on everyday reality and overshadow that reality. The difference in the case of the Holocaust is that the world had denounced that genocide and those horrors, they were truly past, and so the connection had to be imagined. While in her father’s case the past was not yet past.

Then in 2001 her father was
dying, and Abu-Lughod went to take care of him, and the non pastness of the Nakba became her
own experience. "I experienced Israel through his illness and death, with  the inability to get anywhere on the West Bank for the painkillers and morphine patches prescribed by his Israeli doctor, not to mention the broccoli and
salmon he loved." There was the need to hire an ambulance every time he went to the doctor in Israel because the oxygen tank might otherwise run out at a checkpoint. Later there was the intrusive call she got from Israeli security threatening the arrangements for his funeral in Jaffa.

"The physical reality of my father’s death in 2001 was for me inseparable from the details of Israeli

"I heard my father’s stories of Palestine all my life. But it’s different to walk, orphaned, through a hot dusty checkpoint dragging your suitcases because they won’t allow Palestinian vehicles to cross. It’s different to be held up by arrogant soldiers with reflective sunglasses and burnished muscles who willfully delay you though they know you’re perfectly innocent."

As she came into Jerusalem, she imagined the slaves going to freedom on the underground railroad and the
displaced refugees moving through Europe after World War 2. Then she saw the Hebrew signs proclaiming ownership of the land and the utter
separation of Arab and Jew. The Palestinian Nakba was not just a catastrophe of the past, it was
a living catastrophe. "And it continues with the crushing of Gaza and Israel’s refusal to acknowledge on its 60th birthday the roots of the problem in the injustice of 1948."

Abu Lughod sat down with as much reserved dignity as she had
spoken. It was impossible to connect the rage surrounding her family’s experience with the formal woman who had spoken. Afterward I went up to say hello and asked her if she had written more about
her own progress from Egyptian anthropology to exhuming the Nakba. No; she had told her story through her father. She avoided public forums, was leery of the press, they take things out of context. She had grown up watching ferocious people heckling her father at Palestine-related events and it had
frightened her. "I do not like confrontation."

Still she was called to write her book (with Ahmad Sa’di) and to read aloud to a packed hall of mostly students, including a lot
of kids in yarmulkes. Her book has been out a year, she told me it has not been reviewed. What else is there to say except the obvious and pathetic: you are reading the only work of journalism about this tremendously important
American voice, a voice that Columbia University should be getting out to New York and the world, a voice that any serious American who wants to understand why we are where we are should be engaging. 

13 Responses

  1. americangoy
    April 30, 2008, 4:59 pm

    Well, pretty powerful stuff.

    The drama of Israel is – it cannot just give back the homes and land that belonged to Palestinians (Moslems and Christians).

    It could offer some compensation, however.

    After all, Jews were given compensation from Germany, Poland etc. for homes that the natives took over from Jews, in a Jewish version of Nakba.

    But of course, this Nakba is obviously very different from the Jews' own suffering and expulsions…


  2. Jessica
    April 30, 2008, 5:06 pm

    Thank you for posting this moving and powerful story.

  3. Charles Keating
    April 30, 2008, 5:29 pm

    How comic books have undone the USA masses:

    "People are the same no matter what they're called," says Eva Marie Saint (100% Shiksa in appearance) in the strongest and factual straight propaganda movie of all time, Exodus.

    "Don't believe it," replies Paul Newman (Now there's a guy who doesn't look like the real ugly German Jew who slumped to his downfall–damn near the comic book Superman).

    The Jewish hero battles not for the cause of democracy, nor for some cosmopolitan ideal of brotherhood, but as an unabashed Jewish nationalist.

    "All my life I've heard I'm supposed to be a coward because I'm a Jew," the American Jewish captain of the ship, the Exodus, tells a shiksa nurse in the novel, "Let me tell you, kid. Every time the Palmach [a Jewish military branch in Palestine] blows up a British depot or knocks the hell out of some Arabs he's winning respect for me. He's making a liar out of everyone who tells me Jews are yellow. The guys over there are fighting my battle for respect … understand that?"

    The real-life Israeli captain, Yeheil Aranowicz, of the blockade-running ship, the Exodus, upon which the novel is based, was subsequently quoted as saying that "the type [of characters in the novel] never existed in Israel. The novel is neither history or literature."

    Informed of Captain Aranowicz's authoritative judgements, Uris responded, "Captain who? And that's all I have to say. I'm not going to pick on a light weight. Just look at my sales figures."

  4. Charles Keating
    April 30, 2008, 5:36 pm

    At the heart of the Zionist critique of liberal assimilation is the
    conviction that Jews constitute a unique race. It's the belief in
    insurmountable racial differences that makes the inevitability of anti-Semitism credible, just as it rationalizes the view that every effort  to assimilate must go aground on the barrier reef of biological determinism. The maintenance of that racial
    purity was essential to German Zionism, for it acknowledged
    the essential prerequisite for nationhood to be [in the 1922 words of Zionist Fritz Kahn] 'consanguinity of the flesh and solidarity of the soul' together with the 'will to establish a closer [Jewish]  brotherhood over [and] against all other communities on earth.

  5. Charles Keating
    April 30, 2008, 5:40 pm

    Rodney Dangerfield.
    Adolph Hitler.
    Joe Goebbels.
    Hillary & McCain–they don't even have a clue.
    What's wrong with Kansas?

  6. the Sword of Gideon
    April 30, 2008, 6:06 pm

    Now i know your a lunatic, explain the connection between Rodney Dangerfield and Hitler?

  7. Jim Haygood
    April 30, 2008, 6:51 pm


    It's Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel. From the JPost:


    "Any who deny the Holocaust wish to deny Israel's right to exist," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned Wednesday evening during the opening ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. "Even 60 years later, who would believe that the ugly head of Jew hatred and Israel [hatred] is rearing all over the world."

    "You who deny truths documented in millions of documents; you who deny the railroad tracks leading to the crematoriums and the extermination camps that remain a mute monument; you who deny the eyewitness accounts of millions of people are not interested in historical accuracy – you wish to deny Israel's right to exist and mistakenly think that the Jewish State was established because of the Holocaust. If you will – cancel the Holocaust and the Israel's raison d'etre will also be canceled."

    link to


    The Holocaust is often advanced as proof that a Jewish state needs to exist. But Olmert's reverse proposition — that Holocaust denial seeks to delegitimize Israel — is remarkable.

    Everyone agrees that the early preparations for the Israeli state — from the Zionist conferences a hundred years ago, to the Balfour memo, to early Jewish immigration into Palestine — occurred before the Holocaust. The question of Israel's "raison d'etre" — the notion that Jews needed their own nation-state — obviously predated WW II and the Holocaust.

    "You mistakenly think that the Jewish state was established because of the Holocaust," says Olmert. Yet the Holocaust is often advanced by Israel's own partisans as a justification for its existence. Careful, Ehud — that shotgun you're firing has a wide pellet dispersion pattern. In any event, I definitely understand that you're equating antizionism with antisemitism. Play that Shoah card you just stepped on — it's still good!

    Curiously, the article doesn't mention the reason why this day was chosen as Holocaust Remembrance Day. Tonight is Walpurgisnacht — witches' night — the night Hitler and Goebbels committed suicide. Some say they were committing their souls to Satan. I could buy that.

    Doubtless Adolf and Joseph are preparing a warm welcome for three of their above-ground confreres; Bush, Cheney and Sharon. Reminds me of a song by a talented folk singer, the late Dave Carter (no relation to Jimmy):

    down come a shipment of used car salesmen smilin' like rattlesnakes
    every politician in the whole blame country, claimin' there was some mistake
    lawyers and thieves and state police; gentlemen of the press
    cons and flunkies, slackers, junkies; agents of the IRS

    welcome to texas underground
    we got a barbeque all year round
    plenty of country singers around
    bound to have ourselves a ball

    so pull up a chair, you can chew on the fat
    gets a might dry, but we like it like that
    dance with the devil in a stetson hat
    welcome to texas, y'all

    link to

  8. Leila Abu-Saba
    April 30, 2008, 7:50 pm

    Thank you for this report, Phil. I will go buy Lila's new book. The Columbia events you are attending sound like the seeds for new healing and understanding. We can live in hope and faith that it may be so.

    BTW these books may not get reviewed but it's possible they get on the curriculum, especially since Abu-Lughod's other books are part of the accepted syllabus in Arab studies, Women's Studies, and Anthropology. I can see that Nakba might have a place in all kinds of courses. Academia keeps many books alive that would otherwise be totally lost in the static of the mainstream.

  9. Joshua
    April 30, 2008, 8:11 pm

    Thank you for the exposure. I will find the book and put it on the "must-read" list that is getting too long.

  10. the Sword of Gideon
    May 1, 2008, 12:38 am

    Haygood, exactly how much incest took place in your family?

  11. an gus
    May 1, 2008, 11:00 am

    "(Now there's a guy who doesn't look like the real ugly German Jew who slumped to his downfall–damn near the comic book Superman)."
    Will Charles Keating confirm that he posted this comment?

  12. an gus
    May 1, 2008, 12:25 pm

    Lying Jewish Hollywood may pretend otherwise. But only real ugly Jews suffered in the Holocaust. There is no other kind of Jew. Certainly not Paul Newman. Now there's a guy who doesn't look like the real ugly German Jew who slumped to his downfall.

    Thank you for the moving report Philip, which elicited the comment from Charles Keating. By not deleting Keating's comment, Philip continues to provide a platform for people who are motivated by concern for Palestinians slumping to their downfall.

  13. Charles Keating
    May 1, 2008, 4:46 pm

    Yeah, you got to look real deep.

    The widespread Jewish (Witty) illusion of harmonizing completely contradictory worldviews (universalism and particularism) is likewise echoed in the ideology of Zionism (although some important Zionist strands have been disbanding not only allegiance to universality, but to democracy as a social principle). As the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, (in this realm yet again a claim of Jewish "uniqueness") put it:
    "Two basic aspirations underlie all our work in this country: to be like all nations, and to be different from all nations."

    Another example of Israel's implicitly contradictory nature, notes Rachelle Saidel, is that the eventual "linking [of] the creation of the Jewish state to the murder of six million Jews causes this state to be born with a built-in paranoia. This 'birth defect' has led Israel to beg for normalcy — to be treated as all other nations, while at the same time pointing out how — because of the Holocaust, it should be treated differently."

    The clumsily veiled chauvinism at root here is, as always, the classical religiously-based Jewish notion of the necessity for Jews to be "a people apart," "unique," distinct from all others. ["Lo, the people shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations." –NUMBERS 23:9]

    For some Israelis, notes Myron Aronoff, the biblical admonition that Israel "is a people that shall dwell alone and shall never be reckoned among the nations, [is] a curse. However, others consider it an affirmation of Israel's chosenness."

    "Rather than normalization, was becoming the watchword … Israelis were again seeing themselves, in the words of Balaam's blessing, as 'a people who shall dwell alone' … Israel was moving from a universalistic, secular, rational, civic orientation to one that was particularist, religious, mystical, and primordial. It was reverting from an 'Israeli' outlook, embodied in the concept of the State of Israel, back to a more 'Jewish' self-identity."
    Israeli Meron Benvenisti sees the transformation — the absorption of traditional Jewish exclusionist identity into Zionism — this way:
         "Jewish elitist perceptions of the 'chosen people' were crystallized
         against a background of humiliation, scorn, hate, and alienation in
         the diaspora. Only a belief in his unique identity could sustain the
         Jew … The selfsame precepts, transferred to a situation where the
         Jews are the majority, ruling another nation [Arabs], interacting on an
         equal basis with the [other] goyim, assume a sinister, domineering
         significance. Ahavat Israel, the love of Israel, the deep sense of
         affinity and of common destiny, the belief in col Israel haverim (all
         Israel are comrades) which sustained the diaspora Jews and gave
         them a measure of security, resulted in xenophobia — being increasingly
         perceived as synonymous with sin'at hagoy (hate for the goyim)."
         [Benvenisti, p. 76]

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