The following is an exchange from a panel that took place in December 2018 in Tel Aviv, in Hebrew, for an audience of mostly Israeli Jews. The panel’s title was “Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?” – or as some panelists bluntly put it, are “divorce” and “separation” the appropriate metaphors for thinking about the future of Israel-Palestine? The panelists were Yael Barda, a sociologist and activist from Hebrew University, Jafar Farah, a Palestinian civil rights activist and founder of Mossawa center, and Shaqued Morag, Executive Director of the Israeli NGO Peace Now. The moderator was Israeli journalist Meron Rapaport.
The discussion lasted nearly two hours and touched on many issues, but one exchange in particular stood out. At one point, an Israeli man in the audience made a comment that’s familiar from dominant discourses on Israel-Palestine. The man’s narrative – about Palestinians rejecting the U.N. Partition Plan, and Jews’ right to the land based on a two-thousand-year history – represents a generic Zionist Israeli perspective.
Jafar Farah, the only Palestinian panelist, delivered a piercing, comprehensive, and inspiring response. The exchange, translated from Hebrew and lightly edited, is below.
The power of Farah’s answer stems not only from its substance but from Farah’s insistence to deliver it, unflinchingly, in an otherwise hostile Israeli-Jewish setting. Farah’s commentary was, of course, about Palestine and its history, how that history is being erased by the State of Israel, and about the reckoning and rebuilding that needs to happen in a settler-colonialist society. Yet Farah’s answer goes beyond the familiar axes of Israel-Palestine. He expresses concern not only for Palestinians, but for the broader region and the world. He reminds the Israeli Jew who addressed him that he’s not alone in this world; that it’s not only his own safety, comfort and future that matter.
Farah’s remarks struck me as essential reading. They begin at the 1:22:52 mark in the video below.
Israeli audience member: If I may, I’d like to express a slightly more right-wing perspective. If I speak nonsense, please stop me. But I’m hearing very left-wing views here and I’m more of a centrist. And I don’t live in Israel, in fact, I’m just visiting, and a friend brought me here tonight. But what I’m hearing from this Palestinian fellow here [panelist Jafar Farah], and others here, is that it’s as if suddenly Israel just wanted to settle here.
You [Farah] said, “Did God give this land to the Jewish people?” No, that’s not it. It’s history. Jews have lived here for years and years, they were also expelled from here at various points. For two thousand years they’ve yearned to return here, just like the Palestinians – so it’s not like it was all Palestine and the Palestinians were expelled. That’s one. And two, there was the [U.N.] Partition Plan. It was you who rejected that, not Israel. And what followed was a consequence of that. The refugee problem was a result of that too. Third, when I look at things – you know, I am also against settlements and various provocations – I am for two states. My fear, and the fear of many Israelis, is something you must understand. You’ve got to see where they’re coming from. They believe
Farah: From the Germans, they fear the Germans.
Audience member: No, no, excuse me, that’s not nice what you just said. I know this cliché. The fear comes from your side, from the Palestinian side, when you say you haven’t given up on the dream of having a whole Palestine. Why don’t you come to me one day and say, “Look, we’ve given up on Palestine, let’s make two states.” There’s a history here, you know, the fear is not out of the blue. Forgive me from straying from tonight’s main line but that’s my opinion…
Look, I don’t live here, but I love it here. I visit here every two years or so and I read Yedioth Aharonoth [Israeli newspaper] everyday, even more than newspapers where I live, so I’m connected to this place from the depths of my soul. My parents came here from Poland and they were the families that were expelled from here two thousand years ago, and you know they too deserve a place…And I’m for two separate states and the folks from Peace Now are also for that. It’s going to be too difficult to have a confederation or something like that. Maybe someday, when the two states get used to one another, we can think of doing something together. But for now, let’s work on two separate states like the original Partition Plan. If you call it “transfer,” then I’m against that.
Farah: So you’re saying no one stole anything from anyone, then. If you insist that God promised you the land, then take it [laughs]. You insist that the economic situation is good because you worked hard, not because you’ve exploited the Palestinians for 60-70 years, and you haven’t taken other people’s houses [laughs]. I wonder, you know, why you don’t want to talk about the history. And I’m happy to talk about history and about the Shoah…
Whoever is capable, after 80 years, of rebuilding a new way of life with the Germans, after all that they’ve done to him, it’s time for that person to wake up and say, we have no choice – maybe with the Germans you have a choice, because you live here – but we [Palestinians] are the only neighbors you’ve got. Not the Germans, despite your insistence to sing in the Eurovision. And I say this out of anger because I’m sick of hearing [what we’ve just heard].
[Addressing audience member] In the last three thousand years, I didn’t expel you from here, I’m not responsible for this. It’s a chutzpah to lay the blame for that on me. My parents lived in Haifa and one day woke up and found that rather than 70,000 Palestinians they were merely 2,000. They try every day to rebuild themselves and deal with the trauma you’ve created for us. And yes, you have no right to expel another people because God promised you something.
[Audience member interjects]
Don’t interrupt me, I listened to you politely, now let me tell you the truth, a little bit in your face. Because I’m sick of this fake talk about wanting “peace.” I’m not the Nazi who murdered Jews. And I have no reason to defend the Nazis. The issues you have with the Nazis you’ve got to take up with the Nazis. I am not responsible for what the Nazis did and I’m not willing to let Ahmadinejad take advantage of me as he tells the world he’s protecting the Palestinian people. He is not…There was not one Arab leader in the last 100 years who used us and was truly committed to the Palestinian cause.
Our attempt to build a future together must be based on truth. Whoever took the water of the Palestinian people, our houses in Jaffa, he who expelled us and took our homes for himself – he shouldn’t talk about an economic “gap” – he created the gap. You are the second and third generations of people who took homes from people who were expelled from those homes. Let’s talk about how to build a future based on the fact that after everything that’s happened to me, I’m still willing to recognize your right to self-determination. I recognize that need, and the history, including what the Nazis did. And I’m willing to say, come, let’s do this based on the truth of the current situation – a situation you’ve partly created. And in part it was created by the Zionist movement that exploited you, and sent you here, and placed you in development towns [referring mainly to Arab and North African Jews] to serve as shield against Palestinians so they won’t “infiltrate” their own homeland.
Let’s talk truthfully. My mother’s family from Eilaboun that was expelled to Lebanon are not “infiltrators” in their homeland. Someone who’s an “infiltrator” after 3,000 years shouldn’t call himself “oleh chadash” [Zionist/Israeli government term for recent Jewish migrant to Israel]. Let’s be real.
Let’s stop with all this arrogance about how much you’ve built here, and the greatness of the “Jewish Brain” – this arrogance is irritating. What we’ve been through – and the state the Palestinian people are in today – is partly a result of our homeland being stolen, and the massive annihilation of our people. So, let’s build a future that’s not based on lies, but on my willingness to recognize your need for self-determination and your recognition of mine. I’m not talking about rights here, but about recognizing each other’s needs.
The Palestinian people have a need for self-determination, including self-determination vis-à-vis the Lebanese and the Syrians and others. I don’t want to be a resident guest in Lebanon or Syria or any other place. The need for self-determination of the Palestinian people, as a people of their own and not as Arab people, not as guests in Iraq but in their homeland, is a need that must be fulfilled. How do we do this? It’s always described, including by our friends in the so-called “Peacenik Camp,” as “mission impossible.” No, it’s not impossible. There were terrible tragedies in Europe and look, Europe is rebuilding itself. They did terrible things to each other in Europe, far more terrible than what was done here in the last 80 years. But they sat together and talked eye-to-eye. And they’re trying to rebuild, even though it’s not perfect.
Now in South Africa the white people screwed over the Black people and they must pay their debt, and they haven’t. But to come and say there’s this or that gap [between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, or white and Black South Africans] – that gap was created by someone.
As Jews, you’re not planning to go anywhere, and I’m not interested in you going anywhere (like the United States). Stay here. Look, I don’t work for El-Al. I won’t fly you out of here. I also don’t profile you when you fly El-Al. But I’m sick of you profiling me! You do it as if it was your father’s homeland, the homeland that God promised you, and I’m just a piece of trash that needs to put up with it.
You don’t have ownership of this place. There’s my ownership of this homeland and I’m willing to compromise and share it with you. I’m willing to do that. But the question is: are you willing to honor the fact that I’m willing to give up my historical rights – rights that were stolen, not 3,000 years ago but 70 years ago – and build a future based on respect for each other’s needs? You want your linguistic rights, fine, I want my linguistic rights too…
Let’s talk about a future where we do something about the settlers. And don’t speak of Palestinians and settlers like they’re symmetrical [a reference to a comment panelist Yael Barda made earlier in the panel]. They’re not the same. The settlers are part of the occupation agenda, which must end. And it’s time that Tel-Aviv and Haifa and Netanya and all the cities that talk about “social justice” make the link between social justice and the occupation. It’s not only what happened in the past, it’s what’s happening today. Today, Haifa is paying the price of maintaining Ofra and other settlements. That’s what a real Left would talk about. Real Left is not about just recognizing the Palestinian people [but also making these connections].
When I hear talk about us being part of a weak and problematic Middle East, a rough region, I feel that as a democratic Arab I have a contribution to make to the entire Arab sphere. I want the entire Arab sphere to change for the better. You only want Israel to change for the better – and if possible, maybe improve the Palestinians’ situation too because if things are bad for them it’ll be bad for you.
Things are bad in this region and in the world more broadly. A refugee flees from Africa to Israel – why do you expel him? A victim of expulsion? You yourself a victim of expulsion, and you do this [expel] and then moralize against us? When an African refugee flees and comes here, what security threat does he possibly pose to you? He’s expelled, he’s humiliated, he’s treated the way that Jews were historically treated.
And then you moralize to us: “We’ll give you a state, two states and separation.” That hasn’t work and it won’t work, because we’ll be in Jaffa and Haifa and whenever we see you on the bus, we’ll remind you that we’re Arabs and Palestinians – and you’ll have to come to terms with us, not the Germans. With us. We must accept you and you must accept us. It’s a mental process.
I understand the fear. But I am the one who should be scared! I’m the one who was expelled from here! I’m the one who doesn’t have nuclear weapons and F-16s. I’m the one who should be scared, not you! So please don’t tell me about fear. I am the one who’s scared of you because of all your weapons and your capacity to oppress me, to trample all over me, to throw me out and to tell me I don’t even have a right as a refugee to return after 70 years – but you, as refugee after 3,000 years, you have a right to return. Enough! Why do you have a right to return after 3,000 but the Palestinian refugee can’t return even after 20 years?
Audience member: The Partition Plan…
Farah: I don’t want the Partition Plan! If someone came into your home and split it up, would you accept it? It’s natural that Palestinians in ’48 rejected the plan, it’s so natural. Are you willing today to go for a solution that realizes both of our needs for self-determination or not? Do you want to continue this war for generations, go ahead. What can I say.
Audience member: That’s what you understood…
Farah: Yes, that’s what I understood from you. You live in the U.S. and come tell me “oh, 3,000 years ago”… I’m the one who’s scared. You’re the one with the F-16s. I don’t have F-16s. I can be arrested and have my leg broken while you sit at home.
Audience member: What you represent is extremism. I spoke moderately, and you speak in extremist terms. The way you speak is what scares me. That’s exactly it. Do you understand why I’m scared? It’s the way you say it.
Farah: Yes. You should be scared. You stole the home of a people, you stole people’s houses, and you’re not willing…
Audience member: Stop, stop it, come on…
Farah: …and you’re not even willing to say “sorry,” “I’m sorry I did that.”
Audience member: You’re talking nonsense, I don’t want to hear it anymore. Real nonsense.
[moderator breaks up exchange]