At a time when grassroots activists and organizers everywhere are denouncing normalization with Israel, one Palestinian with a very large global social media following is actively promoting it, pandering to the liberal Zionist line of “both sides” being to blame for the violence and loss of life in Palestine.
Nuseir Yassin, better known by his Facebook name “Nas Daily,” is a 28-year old Harvard graduate who quit his tech job in New York city in 2016, in order to travel the world in 1000 days, making one-minute videos in each different locale. He quickly gained a very large following on social media, and his videos (according to his website) have been seen more than 6 billion times, even as he earned the bitter criticism of Palestinians, who accuse him of whitewashing Israel’s crimes, one sixty-second video at a time.
Yassin currently lives in Israel, and recently announced the launch of the “NasAcademy,” which will train aspiring creators to make their own videos for social media distribution. In a statement (only available in Arabic at the moment) issued earlier this week, the BDS movement is calling for a boycott of the NasAcademy.
Nas Daily’s approach to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people, which the BDS movement’s statement describes as “steeped in normalization,” is best summarized as “it’s not a black and white issue, both sides have committed wrongs, it’s time to get along.” But here’s the deal: a society need not be flawless in order to be spared oppression by another.
Let me clarify. One book I have assigned every time I taught any course touching on colonialism and postcolonial studies is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Achebe is not my favorite postcolonial writer, but I deeply appreciate the fact that he does not romanticize Igbo culture, as he recreates the early moments of contact between the English colonizers and his own people. The Igbo society he depicts has its fair share of oppressive patriarchy, the central character is a model of toxic masculinity, and Achebe does not shy away from including an episode that is strictly tangential to the novel’s plot, yet reveals a particularly disturbing Igbo belief and custom: the fear of twins, which led the (fictional) Umuofia clan to kill newborn infant twins by taking them to “the Evil Forest,” where they are left to die in earthenware containers. I always use that episode as a springboard for a discussion of the fact that a society does not need to be fault-less to be spared colonialism.
Indian culture also has its share of cruel oppressive customs, be they related to caste, or patriarchy, among other social ills. None of these justify the centuries of British rule and brutal exploitation–which by the way have not ended patriarchy and the caste system in India.
And of course, Palestinian culture is far from perfect today, and never was perfect. Our social ills, including the horrific custom of “honor killings,” predate Zionism. Our elected political leaders are at best ineffective, at worst extremely corrupt. We have made many mistakes, which have cost us freedom, sovereignty, dignity, independence.
But pointing out these mistakes to justify normalization and suggest some equivalence between oppressor and oppressed, occupier and occupied, is wrong. Yet this is exactly what Nas has been doing for years. In a caption to a 2018 video, for example, he wrote, “Israel has gone too far with its force. But to pretend that one side is fully responsible for this is inaccurate.” Pandering to the Zionist platitude of “both sides” being to blame for the “conflict,” (words such as settler-colonialism or genocide are notoriously lacking from his videos), Nas continues: “I can name a hundred things we as Palestinians (and Arabs like in Egypt and Jordan) did wrong in the past 70 years, and the same goes to Israel. Once you realize every side is to blame, you really can’t take sides.”
The NasAcademy’s website states that Nas himself will not be teaching the videomaking courses, although he may make occasional guest appearances. The academy’s appeal, however, clearly relies on Nas’ charm and immense popularity. According to the BDS movement’s statement, it is supported by the New Media Academy, an institution launched by the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, who recently signed a “peace treaty” with Israel. The NasAcademy is also launching a related program, “the next Nas Daily,” which will train 80 Arab video creators to produce daily videos, in Arabic, in Nas’s popular style, for the Arabic-speaking audience. The Academy’s motto is “We want to be a force for good.”
The “Head of Training” in the NasAcademy is Yonatan Belik, a former counselor in the coexistence camp “Seeds of Peace,” a former soccer player member of the “Peace Team,” another “coexistence” initiative, and an Israeli cultural ambassador featured on the hasbara site Israel21C. When Belik served in the Israeli army, he was “a PR for the Logistics unit, motivating and informing high-school seniors to serve in the army.”
The videos created by the future graduates of the NasAcademy may prove to be “entertaining,” and will likely give the Arab videographers a platform to express mild criticism of their own society. Yes, we have numerous social ills, many of which are absolutely egregious, in our Arab societies, and these need to be denounced and addressed. But change “for good” can only come from within, and has historically never resulted from outside intervention. Normalizing Zionist colonization by joining an Israeli institution that claims to be a “force for good,” even as its sponsors whitewash gross human rights violations, is not the way to redress societal wrongs.