Why I am determined to tell Palestinians' stories

The Palestinian narrative has not been properly explained in the West, writes James Zogby

A Palestinian family talk while large crowds of people swim at the Gaza City beach. Adel Hana / AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

It was 40 years ago that I cofounded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC) and wrote Palestinians, the Invisible Victims. I was concerned that in the American mind, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been reduced to a simple equation: Israeli humanity versus the Palestinian problem.

When most Americans thought of the conflict they were able to imagine Israelis as people just like them. They were parents who loved their families. They wanted what Americans wanted: peace, prosperity, and a chance to watch their children grow and realise their dreams. They had names and faces. They experienced pain and loss. They were real.

Palestinians, on the other hand, were, at best, presented as an abstraction. They were objectified into a faceless mass, without names or personalities. When spoken of at all, they were refugees or terrorists or, after a conflict, mere numbers in a body count. Americans did not know them as individual people and what was known was cast in negative stereotypes. The only emotions ascribed to them were that they were angry and violent, and not to be trusted. They were not people to be supported, but a problem to be solved.

It was through this lens that most Americans, both policymakers and the public at large, viewed the conflict. When given the choice between a people or a problem, it was an easy call to support the Israeli people.

This framing of the issue was not by accident. Rather it was the result of a systematic campaign to dehumanise the one side while humanising the other. It was best captured by the 1960s propaganda film The Exodus, which transposed the then-popular American narrative of pioneers confronting native Americans onto the story of "courageous Israelis" fighting the savage "Arab natives".

During the following decades, this framing of the conflict continued. In 1981, I reported on TV news coverage of a cross-border confrontation between Israel and the PLO in Lebanon. On the first day, two Israelis were killed. TV cameras were there interviewing weeping family members, telling their story of fear and pain. The next day, Israeli jets bombed the Fakhani neighbourhood in West Beirut killing over 383 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. That night, the TV cameras were again in northern Israel with more follow-up interviews. There was no coverage from Lebanon, just reports of an Arab body count. When the TV coverage did occur a day later, the reporter stood at the end of a bombed-out street showing massive destruction. No one was interviewed, no personal stories were told. In Israel the story was the people, in Lebanon it was the buildings and a body count.

In 1994, when Baruch Goldstein, a young American-Israeli terrorist, massacred 29 Muslim worshippers in a Hebron mosque, The Washington Post did a major feature piece trying to understand what happened to turn the young man to violence. The faces, names and ages of the Palestinian victims never made it into print. Goldstein was the story; his victims were invisible. A few years later, a 3-month-old Israeli baby was murdered by a Palestinian sniper. The story was front-page news for three days, with pictures and interviews with the weeping parents. When, just days later, a 3-day-old Palestinian baby was murdered by an Israeli sniper, no major paper picked up the story. It was only reported on the seventh line of a short news agency story. No name was given and the parents were not interviewed. It was as if their child and their pain did not matter.

Palestinian invisibility and/or objectification continues to define the conflict today. Even the most progressive voices in Congress don't speak about Palestinians. Instead, they advocate for a two-state solution to preserve Israel as a Jewish democratic state. A liberal pro-Israel group periodically puts full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post calling for two states, making the obscene argument of the demographic threat to the Israel's Jewishness posed by the Palestinian birth rate.

Unfortunately, progressives often unconsciously contribute to this by failing to elevate Palestinian humanity. Their efforts focus on condemning Israeli policies (which, no doubt, deserve condemnation), calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. While I support BDS, I fear that, at times, the case for BDS is made without telling the personal stories of Palestinian victims of occupation. Instead of elevating Palestinians, punishing Israel becomes the goal.

And so the problem remains: Americans still do not know Palestinians as real people and, as a result, do not care about them. Because this remains the challenge we face, I have decided that 100 years after the Balfour Declaration, 70 years after the partition and 50 years after the 1967 war, I will go back to my roots to tell the Palestinian story. To do so will inevitably confront the Zionist narrative that has denied not only Palestinian humanity but also their very existence as a people with a history.

I want to elevate Palestinian poets and artists. I want to spend my energy elevating the Palestinian narrative, putting flesh on the bones of the Palestinian experience, and challenging Americans to know Palestinians as real people who want and deserve justice, equality, peace and prosperity, and as parents who love their families and want to see their children grow and realise their dreams.

Some may find this threatening because it challenges the fundamentally racist equation that has defined this conflict for a century. So be it.

Dr James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa