Debunking the Palestinian stereotype

Debunking the Palestinian stereotype

Achieving a just and lasting peace in the Middle East is for the United States not only a matter of national security but a moral calling. The United States is the designated third party in this protracted conflict, both because we are the world’s only superpower and by sheer dint of our billions in tax dollars invested in Israel’s security every year.

But to live up to this responsibility and to truly act as honest brokers in the region, we must address the fact that our policymakers, and many of us as citizens, are woefully ignorant of who the Palestinians are.

Despite America’s deep involvement in the region, many Americans are unfamiliar with Palestinian history and the decades-long tragedy of their dispossession.

It is my hope that the Atlanta premiere of my play, “Tennis in Nablus,” which takes place in Palestine in 1939, gives audiences a glimpse of Palestinian humanity, humor and tragedy, and that it serves to provoke a discussion about the past and present.

There is no shortage of allusions to Palestinian violence in our mass media. From the evening news to our summer blockbusters, the very word “Palestinian” has through the years become synonymous with violence.

And in recent months both President Barack Obama and global rock icon Bono have wrongly intimated an absence of Palestinian practitioners of nonviolence. The apparent implication of their statements was that Palestinians have only themselves and their violent ways to blame for their miserable lot in life and the impasse in the peace process. This, sadly, is not an uncommon refrain here in the United States.

If we took the time to learn about the Palestinian people, we would find they are quite different from the Palestinians we tend to meet in films, and in so doing, our country’s chances at helping broker an end to the conflict would increase dramatically.

As a Palestinian-American playwright, I am deeply committed to challenging the myths and distortions about Palestinians that abound in American discourse.

In my plays, I try to bring to light some of the often obscured human dimensions of Palestinian identity. My work attempts to challenge the stereotype of the Palestinian as a violent, barbaric and inherently anti-Semitic opponent of modernity.

But “Tennis in Nablus,” despite its examination of pertinent and timeless themes such as the use of violence versus nonviolence, is not enough. No play is. And neither is discussion alone. But it is a start.

And it is high time that we, as Americans, engage in an honest, compassionate and informed discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The current situation, where Israeli teenagers are sent to Palestinian “homelands” to militarily control millions of Palestinians and their land is not only unsustainable, but is morally corrosive to both Israeli and Palestinian society. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told us: “This madness must cease.”

In fact, there is a growing nonviolent movement against the occupation and the illegal “separation wall” that Israel has erected. This wall rises higher and stretches farther than the Berlin Wall ever did.

The protests against the wall are led by villagers who have been cut off from their land and their relatives by the omnipresent concrete and barbed wire barrier. In the villages of Bil’in and Na’alin, weekly protests are regularly met with rubber bullets, tear gas and handcuffs.

Visitors, Israelis and locals alike are subject to such repression, and over the past several years dozens of marchers have been killed and injured.

In the past five months, four grass-roots leaders of the nonviolent protest movement have been arrested by the Israeli army and held for weeks, even months, often without charge or trial.

First was Mohammad Othman; then, Abdallah Abu Rahmeh. Then it was the turn of Jamal Juma’a to be whisked out of his house in the middle of the night in front of his family. Recently, Mohammed Khatib endured the same treatment.

Their crimes? Opposing injustice and seeking freedom, not through violence, but through popular protest and boycott — methods employed by King and Mahatma Gandhi in their respective struggles for freedom.

And yet we hear nothing of these potential Palestinian Gandhis and Kings.

To acknowledge their existence and support their struggle is not to deny Israel’s right to exist but rather to question its right to systematically deny freedom to others.

To start a discussion about this topic and to note these nonviolent warriors is our duty as Americans, especially in the hometown of King, who told us that “nonviolence is the answer to the critical political and moral questions of our time — the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.”

Ismail Khalidi, an award-winning playwright, works at the Institute for Middle East Understanding. His play “Tennis in Nablus” premiered at the Alliance Theatre on Feb. 3 and runs through Feb. 21.

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