Like so many others, I’m moved by Mohammed Assaf’s triumph, and more than that by the beauty of his singing and his dedication to Palestinian culture and political self-determination. If you missed this story, you need only watch his audition video. You will see a sensitive young man, nearly overcome by nervousness, rising to the occasion. As the judges respond to the sweetness of his voice, he gains confidence, and his large soul comes into his song.
But Mohammed Assaf’s story also has great political implications, involving collective punishment and the one-state future.
In December 2008, when Mohammed Assaf was 19, Israel launched the massive attack on Gaza called Cast Lead. The Goldstone Report later accused Israel of war crimes for targeting civilians in its attack: nearly 1400 people were killed over 3 weeks in that open-air prison, many of them civilians, including over 300 children.
When I went into Gaza in June 2009, John Ging of the UN told my delegation that the people of Gaza were “deeply civilized,” a truth we would see again and again during our visit.
Today when I watch Mohammed Assaf, and sense the depth of tradition and training in his voice, I remember Ging’s words, and think how easily this young man might have been destroyed in that attack, and we would never have known about him.
How many other young talented people were destroyed in that attack? How many other beautiful flames doused forever?
The story also illuminates the one-state future.
Mohammed Assaf has spent most of his life under Israeli control/occupation. Today he is a symbol of Palestinian dignity and strength; and so he reminds us of Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole and the other black American artists whose careers were deflected by racism. I think of Marian Anderson being denied the right to sing in an integrated space in Washington DC in 1939, and Eleanor Roosevelt taking a stand for her, proclaiming her a great artist. Because she wanted to claim Marian Anderson as an American.
Already, Israeli Jim Crow has defined Mohammed Assaf’s career. Hatim Kanaaneh says Assaf couldn’t compete in the West Bank due to the restrictions.
One can only imagine the difficulties Assaf will have going forward, pursuing a career in Israel and Palestine… where segregation is the rule, and where even liberal Zionists affirm that segregation as just and proper.
What will Assaf be a symbol of, going forward? He is bound to boycott Israel. Does Israel really want that? Assaf sang several western songs during the competition, including this one. His career, we can only hope, will be as a singer for the world, not just for Palestine.
The majesty of his artistry dares us to imagine: What if he were representing a nation of equals, not divided along racial grounds? What if he were no longer representing an oppressed people, but the people of Israel and Palestine?