Raja Shehadeh is a leading Palestinian writer and human rights lawyer whose new book about walking in Palestine is out in the UK and will be out in the US next year. I just read his 2017 book, “Where the Line Is Drawn: A Tale of Friendships, Crossings, and Fifty Years of Occupation in Israel-Palestine,” which concerns the strained friendship between Shehadeh and an Israeli psychoanalyst named Henry Abramovitch– strained because Abramovitch enjoys rights and Shehadeh has none as a Palestinian under occupation a few miles away. The story also includes many episodes of Shehadeh’s humiliation and fear in dealing with the occupation, tales rendered with steely delicacy.
Shehadeh’s work is as accomplished as that of better-known Israeli writers (including Ari Shavit and Amos Oz); and I interviewed him in July with that as my first question:
PW: Why didn’t this book get more attention in the United States?
Raja Shehadeh: I don’t think I have a clear answer as to why because I don’t understand fully how it goes in the United States. There were a lot of reviews. There was a New York Times review, The New Yorker had a brief mention, even the American Journal of Public Health… The Nation had a long article on my work… So it did get attention, but why didn’t it make it as I had expected that it would in a bigger way? I suppose it’s because the message of the book is not acceptable.
And the message of the book is first, that we are after all human beings and there are obstacles, political obstacles, why we cannot live together and be together. And these include several things. First of all, Israeli unwillingness– and that’s the most important one I think– Israeli unwillingness to accept the Palestinians as a nation and as a people. For instance, in the curriculum, in schools and in public discourse, they describe the war of independence from the British– and it is strange to call it a war of independence– and they do not include the fact that the Palestinians were also fighting the Zionists and the British at that time. They’ve deleted that entirely from history because as far as they’re concerned the Palestinians do not exist.
So here I am speaking about Jaffa [the Palestinian expulsion] at the end of the book saying that no peace can happen until Israelis recognize the right of return– all the things that are red lines as far as Israel is concerned and Zionists in America are concerned. So I think had I been more conciliatory and not mentioned these things, maybe the book would have done better but that’s not how I do things. I say openly everything that I believe in and I believe that no peace can be arrived at except if Israelis recognize amongst other things the right of return and so on. So I think these these are issues.
So the book got a very respectful reception, but it’s not like you were brought to the United States to tour with this book. Am I correct on that?
No, I didn’t tour. I toured in Britain. I attended many, many literary festivals in Britain but then in Britain it did much better than the United States, as is the case with all my books.
How many events in Britain?
No less than 10 or 12 and major festivals like the Hay Festival, the Edinburgh Festival and so on. I attended all of them with great reception, from audiences and so on.
What about Zionists giving you the cold shoulder in Britain?
You know it’s interesting. I’ve had many books that I promoted in Britain, and usually there would be at least one or two people who would speak you know the usual things about, The Arabs didn’t accept the partition scheme and all these stock things, and yet this time with this book there was almost none of that.
So the scene is changing?
I think very much so. My experience in Britain is that the audiences are much more educated and aware of the issues and if they ask questions they ask intelligent questions. In the United States, it’s very irritating, I have found. When I speak, I always get these people who have this page from the Zionists to repeat all the stock things and then you have to answer from the beginning of the case and at this point I find this intolerable.
How often have you have spoken in the United States, and when was the last time?
I think the last time was when I gave the Edward Said Memorial Lecture in Columbia [in 2013]. And then after I gave a lecture which was very well attended, I had this young fellow who said What about the educational system in Palestine which teaches hatred of the Jews? And this is silly because so many people have investigated this and so much has been written that– Not only is it not the case- the curriculum is so devoid of proper history and proper education for the Palestinians because it’s been the subject of so much attention– for example, the First Intifada is mentioned in just one area. Then of course the fact is that the Israeli curriculum is full of messages of hatred to the Palestinians and so much work has been done on this. So you can’t start explaining from beginning about all of this, which had no relationship to my lecture of course.
That was just one question. Does it typify a certain response you get here?
It was one question. At this point maybe I’m wrong in this because I’m told that in the United States things have changed very much. Maybe I should change this [attitude]. But I don’t want to be a polemic and I don’t want to be a propagandist and I don’t want to hear myself repeat again and again. You know I have done so much human rights work and speaking about human rights and so on– I want to move into other territory, which this book does.
And I want to be engaged in what the book says, as you are with me now, not on issues that I have no connection with and that anybody can find out from reading a million books that have been published.
Have you served as a polemicist in some of your visits abroad?
I stopped being a strong activist now in public speaking; but for many many years I did so much speaking in the United States. I did so many tours and I was subjected to so much harassment. But I spoke. And there was so much unfairness. For example when I published the book “Strangers in the House,” I was interviewed by whatever her name is– is it Fresh Air?
Yeah. And instead of asking about the book [a memoir of Shehadeh’s relationship with his father over thirty years with the occupation as backdrop] she went entirely political and put me on the defensive and it was so annoying, so annoying, and I’ve had that experience often in the United States where rather than deal with the book and treat me as an author of a book I become representative of the Palestinians and have to justify why Hamas does what it does.
[Excerpt of Fresh Air interview, 2002: “Now you say that you think Israel’s motivation in the incursion into Ramallah is to dehumanize Palestinians and prove to them that they have no future in that land. Israel says its motivation is to end terrorism, to tear apart the terrorist infrastructure and stop the suicide bombings. What do you think of that part of Israel’s motivation, what Israel says it’s about? Do you see the Palestinian suicide bombers as being part of the cause?… Have you had any disappointments in the Arab leadership?”]
How did you counter her on that occasion? And do you feel good about the way that you acquitted yourself?
No, no, I don’t do well, because I get so annoyed. I’m not the politician. You know that politicians have a hard skin and they cannot be provoked easily. I still feel emotional about it… And sometimes I would have people who were pro settlers or settlers. I think I had once a settler with me and I said, If he’s already a settler, what’s the point of talking about it? He’s already there. I mean I’m not going to convince him to go back!
I think that that has been the case in the United States. I cannot believe that it’s continuing to be the case now because it’s changed and my standing has changed after all these books. But I was always treated as though I’m a Palestinian representative and therefore asked about politics and not about my book. And that is not how it should be.
You were not invited onto Fresh Air for this book?
No I wasn’t.
Did you know Amos Oz? He was on Fresh Air a few times.
Yes. And I had this session with him at the Edinburgh book festival, he and David Grossman, the three of us. And he was patronizing… Before we went in he was very nervous for some reason about me and he said, “Can I help you get permits to go through the airport or something. Just tell me, I will help you.” And I said no thank you I don’t need your help. And he said, “Remember, I’m older than you.”
Did he feel embarrassed? That’s why he said, “I’m older.”
No. He tried the first one and he thought as a Palestinian I always need permits and so I’d say, Oh please do, I need this and that. And when he couldn’t find a response in that way he said Well after all I am older than you. Anyway he’s now dead. I met him several times.
He didn’t have many Palestinian voices in his books. So maybe that made him nervous.
He never asked me about my writing at all. Never recognized that I am a writer, or asked me even about conditions. I would meet him in Jerusalem and he would not say, How did you manage to come over? Did you–? There was no curiosity.
Your friend Henry comes off as a much more sympathetic figure.
I hope so because Henry is a very nice decent man and my friendship with him has continued and is continuing. And the tragedy of the situation with Henry is the bigger tragedy that we cannot avoid politics. We cannot avoid the fact that we are on both sides of this terrible divide. But it’s not only Henry, I have many other Israeli friends. Just yesterday I got something from an old friend, the partner of my Israeli publisher, who said– we’ve been planning to meet, and the question is where and it’s difficult, and so on. And she said I hope the situation will improve so that I can see you more often. And I know she was sincere and I’m sincere in wanting to see him more often but it’s so difficult and the politics comes always as an impediment.
Because after all you’re human beings, you know.
My criticism of the book is that I felt that the title suggested to me as well as incidents with Henry that a friendship is impossible under the circumstances; because ultimately your anger and disappointment in him are going to trump your friendship. So the sympathy is nice. But when you say in the middle of the book, Henry, you haven’t told your children about the Nakba– that’s an intellectual lapse and it’s staggering. And you are angry at him because he’s going to demonstrations but not doing any real activism. Yet you end up by saying that you’ve been able to maintain the friendship. Am I right or wrong in this criticism?
Right and wrong because at times it became impossible to sustain the friendship. And we didn’t have a friendship, or I didn’t see Henry for a number of years. And then you know, politics after all is not everything.
So my feeling after the Oslo accords, I felt so bereft of everything, I felt so disappointed and exploited after all these years of trying to do something and it all went to nothing, that I thought you know if I’m going to lose my friendship with Henry also in addition to losing everything else, it’s too much! I cannot stand to lose everything, including personal relationships. Maybe it’s the wrong way of seeing things, but that’s how I felt.
Also the friendship with Henry has a special quality which I didn’t find in anybody else. So it’s always been something that I treasured. At times I allowed my anger with the politics to override that friendship. But then I would go back and say, Well you know after all, we are not just Palestinian and Jew. We are human beings and we have a friendship and that’s very important.
Do you know many Palestinians who would make a different choice on these types of questions?
Of course, of course, of course. I think politics is overwhelming. And most people cannot overcome the anger. And I think despite everything I have overcome my anger. It’s also because of my father. My father from the very beginning renewed his friendships with old friends from ’48, and I came to know people for what they are rather than as representatives of the enemy.
Of course now the interaction between Israelis and the Palestinians is so minimal that most Palestinians grow up only encountering Israelis as soldiers or settlers. So it’s not difficult to understand why they see them in just one dimensional manner. But in my experience since ’67 I’ve had encounters where I saw the human being and could appreciate that there’s more to the person than his political or ethnic affiliation.
Your father had friends among Zionist settlers in Jaffa?
Before ’48 the situation was entirely different so people interacted– and his father before him was a journalist and they often had discussions with Zionist Jews over issues and over the future. So they had a different kind of relationship. And many of these people who had been friends before ’67 came immediately afterwards to ask about my father if he needed anything and to renew the friendship. And so I got to know them from early on and that I think was helpful because it made me avoid seeing everybody on the other side as one thing.
Is there any political vision contained in the book about the outcome?
I think no. The only thing in the book of a political vision is that in order to move forward we have to confront the past. And that goes both ways. We both have to confront the past. How that will come about when Israel is so powerful and unwilling to come to terms with anything is difficult to know, but there’s no vision beyond that. No; I didn’t advocate one state or two states or anything like that.
What does confronting the past mean for the Israelis?
Well to accept that Palestine was not an empty land and that the Palestinians were there and there could have been a different trajectory, a different future had Ben-Gurion and Begin and the militant Zionists not planned to force out all the Palestinians and take over all the land. Because there were possibilities. I mean, there were great possibilities, there were great relationships and and– it could have worked in a different way.
One of the ways in which it is evident that Israel does not want to merge in the region or get any closer to the Arabs is the way that they are dealing with the language. The languages Arabic and Hebrew are as close as any two languages can be. And yet they are going further and further apart because Israel first of all doesn’t teach its people Arabic. And when they teach it, even when the teacher knows how to pronounce the Arabic characters in Hebrew like the Ein and the Haa’, they do it in a westernised way. So it’s evident that they make no effort to merge in the region, to see common ground.
There’s that great moment at the nursery in Ramle. Do you remember that?
Yes. Of course!
[Shehadeh visits a nursery run by a Canadian-Jewish immigrant to Israel. A young Palestinian worker tells him the name of the village that used to be there and Shehadeh asks him where the former inhabitants are. “‘Where are they now?’ he repeated. ‘Scattered all over the globe.’ He scrutinized my face, trying to tell where I came from and why I was interrogating him.” Shehadeh feels a burst of anger, and decides to ask the nursery owner if she knows the history of the land. But then he is unable to do so.]
Such a beautiful story– so well told! You don’t ask her about Khirbat Beit Far! You just buy and she gives you a gift!
You know, I’m a gardener. My most recent book that is going to be out in August has a lot of gardening and visits to gardens and so on. And my heart melted because she is a fellow gardener and she cares about plants and so on and I just couldn’t have the heart to confront her and be angry with her. You know, I mean it’s as simple as that. Again the human aspect overrides everything else. I’m a wimp–that’s the answer.
Is there a way you could have brought that up without losing control of your feelings and making everything go to hell?
You know, I’ve tried this at other occasions and it’s so far from the consciousness of a person like her who was not told that she– and didn’t try to discover– and is in another world altogether and is trying to connect with nature as far as she’s concerned, by leaving every day to watch the sunset. It’s so removed from her reality that I don’t think a simple question would have raised anything with her, so it’s futile. I’ve tried that in other times and it didn’t work.
Ultimately there will not be a secure solution to this conflict until that consciousness is changed?
Absolutely. But then you know I had the confrontation with Sarah in the beginning in Jaffa. I said, maybe you can feel with the Palestinians and realized that she couldn’t feel with the Palestinians because she thought that they should have merged with the Arab countries and forgotten all about return. I was someone whose family came from Jaffa and was feeling all that pain and she couldn’t even appreciate my pain. So there you go!
Do you feel some responsibility to foster this shift in consciousness through personal encounters?
Not anymore because I think personal encounters will take forever and it will not get very far. And I’ve given up on trying to speak to groups like that. So my way now is through books. And sometimes I get very good reactions from Israelis who say yes your books have opened our eyes. Just just this week I got it from somebody who is a documentary filmmaker who was doing a film on 48. And she said Your books have been very important for me to open my eyes about what happened and the situation. So there are many examples like that. And you reach so many more people through books and the way you reach people through books as you know is that they identify as they read, and then it’s a more profound relationship than an encounter with speech and talk.
Have you read Amos Oz’s books?
I have read some but I don’t like his books, I must say.
I don’t find great honesty with him and I find that he has a mission, a program, a thrust, which he wants to put forward, to make Israel look good and to make himself look good and to say that he’s a peace-loving person when at every case of war, he supported the war, until the end… When I met him and when I heard him speak and the way he puts forward a face and a facade–I don’t feel there is honesty there. He sees himself as a national writer and a nationalist and so on. I don’t go for that.
He became very important to the Zionist mission. They recognized his literary abilities and they promoted him and made him very important. They gave him a status in the United States that was outsized. He became a hero.
Every time there was a dip in the image of Israel in a country they would send Amos Oz to do repair work.
Tell me your response to Kushner’s Bahraini conference and what was the mood of Ramallah?
Oh it was entirely negative! And it felt offensive that this guy Kushner who knows nothing about the situation, who has no feelings about anything except making money and thinks money can solve everything, comes to try and buy the people by offering them– No! It’s much too offensive. And people I think immediately reacted that way. I mean there was mobilization by the Palestinian Authority. But I think there was genuine resentment and I didn’t hear anybody who said, Let’s give it a chance. Nobody! And even though the economic situation is very bad and we are in the dumps.
How concerned are you that the United States and Israel are cultivating friendships in the Sunni world, seemingly effectively?
You know– I have little disappointment with the United States and with the Arab world, because disappointment comes from having hoped for something else. And my hope from the United States and from the Arab world have always been at such a low level that I cannot be disappointed. In a way I find it easier now because it’s all in the open.
I want to ask you about Ari Shavit. Do you know his book, “My Promised Land”?
Yes I do.
It came out a few years before this book. I think that Ari Shavit writes well–
And he knows how to tell a story.
He’s also a committed Zionist. And he justifies ethnic cleansing and is ethnocentric, all the things I don’t like about Zionism and what it’s done to Jewish life let alone to Palestinians. I have gentile friends, non Jews, who were going over to Palestine a few weeks ago and they said give us some books to read. So I gave them a bag full of books and then they said to me Well what do you think of “My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit and what their question reflects is the fact that that book became the latest go-to book for Americans to understand the conflict. And of course it was heavily promoted by our magazines and newspapers and Fresh Air, NPR, not to mention all the synagogues that gave him the tour; and he went to one campus after another. What’s your response to everything I just said?
I agree with you. The way I read Ari Shavit and I did read his book, is that he’s sort of the new Zionist in the sense that it’s not any longer possible to deny what happened in Lud/Lydda. And so he will speak about it and say, “True, but.” Then he would give his interpretation and everything good in Palestine was because of these Zionist Jews. Even the Jaffa orange would not have been there except for Zionist Jews! It’s amazing. So he does a perfect job at making anyone who has any criticism of Israel feel good because well, you know they did some bad things but they had to do them. They had to! And they’re not denying it, which is to their credit. So in the past they used to deny and say, No, no, nothing of this happened at all, at all, at all. Now that there are so many more books and so much more information and knowledge about it they cannot deny. So comes Ari Shavit who goes into, “Yes. We did it, but.” It’s the same as one Israeli friend told me: Now the the job in Israel is– People say that it is an apartheid state, but you know, apartheid is OK.
Are you aware of the reception that he got?
Well of course of course I am. I followed the case and so how much coverage he had. Coverage! Coverage! You know I can never hope for coverage like this. I had a small book once, which was called “When the Bulbul Stopped Singing.” In America it was called, When the Birds Stopped Singing. And several of my books in public libraries had been taken out in the past and torn. But that’s common I suppose. And I was in– what’s the name of the big store, Noble and–
Barnes and Noble.
I looked for my books and I saw that this book of mine was in military history! And I thought that’s strange, I better ask. I didn’t tell them who I was. I said Why did you have this book which is not about military history in military history. And the saleswoman said We were told to put it there. So somebody didn’t want to say No to this book but we will put it in a place that nobody can see it and find it because nobody interested in military history will want this book. So all these things happen, insidious things–it’s infuriating. But I must say I’ve been hearing more and more from people that things are changing in the States and I don’t want to prejudice the situation which I’m not familiar with currently.
So you would come back?
I’m coming back in March. I have a new book which will be out then in America called “Going Home” and I have a reissue of “When the Birds Stopped Singing,” which will now be “When the Bulbul Stopped Singing.” So I will have these two books to promote. In the UK it was titled, “When the Bulbul Stopped Singing,” and I told them that “When the Bulbul Stopped Singing” is a better title because the bulbul is the bird.
It’s a great title, yes.
But the other one is “Going Home: A Walk Through 50 Years of Occupation” and it’s a very personal book about a day’s walk in Ramallah, on the 5th of June 2017 and going through the changes in Ramallah and the changes in me and visiting all the places where I lived and gardens and aging and all kinds of things like that. In Britain it comes out the first of August. And in America it’s probably going to come out when I’m there in March.
One of the things that I found so moving about this book was there are these encounters early on in the occupation in which you were humiliated — like when you tried to go into those Israeli offices for the civil administration, and then the Jew walks in and goes through, and the Israeli soldier says, rules are different for Jews, Jews can go right through. Remember that?
Yeah of course. OK. How can I forget that!?
My response was, I’ve seen apartheid since I’ve been visiting in 2006. But this encounter you had was in the 90’s–
In the late 80’s.
So it was apartheid 35 years ago, and who can have illusions about this. And how much more information does anybody need. And why is this not penetrating the American mind– that for me is the thrust of a lot of the book.
Yes that’s true. Absolutely. And another thrust is that it’s impossible for Israel to do what it’s trying to do without pushing the Palestinians into smaller and smaller enclaves. And that is so obvious and has been so obvious since the beginning of the settlement project, which was started a few months after the occupation. And when I used to go to the United States and speak about human rights I would say that over and over and over, that this is going to be the inevitable thing: that there would be apartheid, that that this will not lead to peace. And now they say, “Well Israel has to do it. And so what?”
Americans say that?
Yes, I mean Americans also have done bad things.
But again to conclude, you have not given up on the United States, you’re coming back in March and you will help transform America and you’ll see how America is being transformed maybe?
Yes. You know I like to come every so often because when you get away from America you get to feel very negative about the place. Then when you go there you realize it’s a country of myriad people and has good things and so on so it’s important to visit. Of course I would not give up. How can I give up on a country like America?