Calling For Palestinian Forward Thinking: The Unique Perspective Of Israel's Vice-Ambassador To Norway – An Israeli-Arab

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From a speech delivered in Oslo on September 27, 2014 by George Deek.

When I walk in the streets of my home town Jaffa, I am often reminded of the year 1948. The alleys of the old city, the houses in Ajami neighborhood, the fishing nets at the port – they all seem to tell different stories about the year that changed my city forever.

One of those stories is about one of the oldest families in this ancient city – the Deek family – my own. Before 1948 my grandfather George, after whom I’m named, worked as an electrician, at the Rotenberg Electricity Company. He was not very interested in politics. And since Jaffa was a mixed city, he naturally had some Jewish friends. In fact, his friends at the electricity company even taught him Yiddish, making him one the first Arabs to ever speak the language.

In 1947 he got engaged to Vera – my grandmother – and together they had plans to build a family in the same city where the Deek family has lived for about 400 years – Jaffa.

But a few months later, those plans changed, literally overnight. When the U.N. approved the establishment of Israel and the State of Israel was established, the Arab leaders warned the Arabs that the Jews are planning to kill them if they stay home, and they used the Deir Yassin massacre as an example.

They told everyone: "Leave your houses, and run away." They said they needed just a few days for 5 armies to destroy the newly-born Israel.

the fate of my familyMy family, horrified by what might happen, decided to flee, with most others. A priest was rushed to the Deek family’s house, and he wedded my grandparents in haste. My grandmother did not even have a chance to get a proper dress. After their sudden wedding, the entire family started fleeing north, towards Lebanon.

But when the war was over, the Arabs failed to destroy Israel. My family was at the other side of the border, and it seemed that the fate of the brothers and sisters of the Deek family was to be scattered around the globe. Today, I have relatives in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Dubai, the U.K., Canada, the U.S., Australia and more.

Global Displacement

The story of my family is just one – and probably not the worst – among the many tragic stories of the year 1948.

And to be frank, you don’t need to be an anti-Israeli to acknowledge the humanitarian disaster of the Palestinians in 1948, namely the Nakba.

The fact that I have to Skype with relatives in Canada who don’t speak Arabic, or a cousin in an Arab country that still has no citizenship there – despite being a third generation – is a living testimony to the tragic consequences of the war.

According to the U.N. 711,000 Palestinians were displaced – some fled, some forcefully expelled.

At the same time, because of the establishment of Israel, 800,000 Jews were intimidated into leaving the Arab world, leaving it mostly empty of Jews.

As we’ve heard before, atrocities from both sides were not uncommon.

But it seems that this conflict was not the only one during the 19th and 20th century that led to expulsion and transfer.

  • From 1821-1922, 5 million Muslims were expelled from Europe, mostly to Turkey.
  • In the 1990s Yugoslavia broke apart, leading to 100,000 people dead and about 3 million displaced.
  • From 1919-1949, during the Visla operation between Poland and Ukraine, 150,000 people died and 1.5 million were displaced.
  • Following World War II and the Potsdam convention, between 12-17 million Germans were displaced.
  • When India and Pakistan were established, about 15 million people were transferred.
  • This trend also exists in the Middle East, for example the displacement of 1.1 million Kurds by the Ottomans, and 2.2 million Christians expelled from Iraq. As we speak today, Yazidis, Bahai, Kurds, Christians and even Muslims are being killed and expelled in a rate of 1,000 people per month, following the rise of radical Islam.

The chances of any of those groups to return to their homes is almost non-existent.

Nakba Day

So why is it that the tragedies of the Serbs, the European Muslims, the Polish refugees or the Iraqi Christians are not commemorated?

How come the displacement of the Jews from the Arab world was completely forgotten, while the tragedy of the Palestinians, the Nakba, is still alive in today’s politics?

It seems to me, because the Nakba has been transformed from a humanitarian disaster to a political offensive. The commemoration of the Nakba is no longer about remembering what happened, but about resenting the mere existence of the State of Israel.

It is demonstrated most clearly in the date chosen to commemorate it: Nakba day is not April 9 – the day of the Deir Yassin massacre, nor July 13 – the day of the expulsion from Lod.

in the eyes of palestinian leadershipNakba day was set on May 15 – the day after Israel proclaimed its independence. The Palestinian leadership declared that the disaster of Nakba is not the expulsion, the abandoned villages or the exile – rather the Nakba in their eyes in the creation of Israel.

They are saddened less by the humanitarian catastrophe that befell Palestinians, and more by the revival of the Jewish state. In other words: they do not mourn the fact that my cousins are Jordanians, they mourn the fact that I am Israeli.

By doing so, The Palestinians have become slaves to the past, held captive by the chains of resentment, and prisoners in the world of frustration and hate.

Music Teacher

But friends, the evident yet simple truth is that in order not to be reduced to sorrow and bitterness, we must look forward. To put it more clearly: To mend the past, first you have to secure the future.

This is something I learned from my music teacher, Avraham Nov. When I was 7 years old I joined the marching band of the Arab-Christian community in Jaffa. That is where I met Avraham, my music teacher, who taught me to play the flute and later the clarinet.

Avraham is a Holocaust survivor, and his entire family was murdered by the Nazis. He was the only one who managed to survive, because a certain Nazi officer found him gifted in playing harmonica, and took him home during the war to entertain his guests.

When the war was over Avraham was left alone. He could have easily sat and wept over the greatest crime of man against man in history, and over the fact that he is left alone. But he didn’t. He looked forward, not backward.

He chose life, not death. Hope, rather than despair.

Avraham came to Israel, got married, built a family, and he started teaching the same thing that saved his life – music. He became the music teacher of thousands of children all over the country.

And when he saw the tension between Arabs and Jews, this Holocaust survivor decided to teach hope through music to hundreds of Arab children like me.

this holocaust survivorHolocaust survivors like Avraham are among the most extraordinary people you can find. I was always curious to understand how they were able to survive, knowing what they knew, seeing what they saw. But throughout the 15 years I have known Avraham when I was his student, he never spoke about his past, except once – when I demanded to know.

What I came to realize was that Avraham was not the only one, and that many Holocaust survivors did not speak about those years, even to their families, sometimes for decades, or even a lifetime. Only when they had secured the future did they allow themselves to look back at the past. Only when they had built a time of hope did they permit themselves to remember the days of despair.

They built the future in their old-new home, the State of Israel. And under the shadows of their greatest tragedy, Jews were able to build a country that leads the world in medicine, agriculture and technology. Why? Because they looked forward.

Political Pawns

This is a lesson to every nation that wishes to overcome tragedy – including the Palestinians.

If the Palestinians wish to redeem the past, they need to first focus on securing a future, on building a world as it should be, as our children deserve it to be. And the first step in that direction, without a doubt, is to end the shameful treatment of the Palestinian refugees.

In the Arab world, the Palestinian refugees – including their children, their grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren – are still not settled, aggressively discriminated against, and in most cases denied citizenship and basic human rights. Why are my relatives in Canada Canadian citizens, while my relatives in Syria, Lebanon or the Gulf countries – who were born there and know no other home – are still considered refugees?

Clearly, the treatment of Palestinians in Arab countries is the greatest oppression they experience anywhere. And the collaborator in this crime is none other than the international community and the United Nations. Rather than doing its job and help the refugees build a life, the international community is feeding the narrative of the victimhood. While there is one U.N. agency in charge of all refugees in the world (UNHCR), a special agency was established to deal only with Palestinians (UNRWA).

This is no coincidence. While the goal of the UNHCR is to help refugees establish a new home, establish a future and end their status as refugees, the goal of UNRWA is the opposite: to preserve their status as refugees, and prevent them from being able to start new lives.

The International community cannot seriously expect the refugee problem to be solved, when it is collaborating with the Arab world in treating the refugees as political pawns, denying them the basic rights they deserve.

Wherever the Palestinian refugees were granted equal rights; they prospered and contributed to society – In South America, in the U.S., and even in Israel.

In fact, Israel was one of the few countries to automatically give full citizenship and equality for all Palestinians after 1948. And we see the results: Despite all the challenges, the Arab citizens of Israel built a future. Israeli Arabs are the most educated Arabs in the world, with the best living standards and opportunities in the region.

Arabs serve as judges in the Supreme Court; some of the best doctors in Israel are Arabs, working in almost every hospital in the country; there are 13 Arab members of parliament who enjoy the right to criticize the government – a right that they exhaust to the fullest – protected by freedom of speech; Arabs win popular reality TV shows... and you can even find Arab diplomats like me!

Living without Fear

Today, when I walk the streets of Jaffa, I see the old buildings and the old port. But I also see children going to school and university; I see flourishing businesses; and I see a vibrant culture. In short, despite the fact that we Arabs still have a long road ahead of us as a minority, we have a future in Israel.

The time has come to put an end to the culture of hatred and incitement. Because anti-Semitism, I believe, is a threat to Muslims and Christians, as much as for Jews.

No nation has ever paid a heavier price for being a minority, being different, than the Jewish people. The history of the Jewish people added many words to the human vocabulary: expulsion, forced conversion, inquisition, ghetto, pogrom, not to mention holocaust.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains accurately, that the Jews suffered throughout the ages, because they were different. Because they were the most significant non-Christian minority in Europe, and today the most significant non-Muslim minority in the Middle East;

But the truth is: being different is what makes us human! Every person, every culture, every religion is unique, and therefore irreplaceable. And a Europe or a Middle East that has no room for Jews, has no room for humanity.

Let us not forget: Anti-Semitism may begin with Jews, but it never ends with Jews. Jews were not the only ones to be forcefully converted under the inquisition; Hitler made sure that gypsies and homosexuals, among others, suffered alongside the Jews; and it is happening now again, this time in the Middle East.

The Arab world seems to have forgotten that its greatest days in the last 1,400 years were when it showed tolerance and openness towards those who are different. The genius mathematician Ibn Musa el-Khawazmi was Uzbeki; the great Philosopher Rumi was Persian; the glorious leader Salah a-din was Kurdish; the founder of Arab nationalism was Michel Aflaq – a Christian; and the one who brought the Islamic rediscovery of Plato and Aristotle to the rest of the world was Maimonides – a Jew.

But rather than reviving the successful approach of tolerance, Arab youth are being taught to hate Jews, using anti-Semitic rhetoric from medieval Europe, mixed with Islamic radicalism.

Once again, what started as hostility towards Jews has become hostility towards anyone who is different. Just last week more than 60,000 Kurds fled from Syria towards Turkey, afraid of being slaughtered. On the same day, 15 Palestinians from Gaza drowned in the sea trying to escape the claws of Hamas. Bahai and Yazidis are at risk.

the ethnic cleansing of christiansAnd on top of it all, the ethnic cleansing of Christians in the Middle East is the biggest crime against humanity in the 21st century. In just two decades, Christians like me have been reduced from 20% of the population of the Middle East to a mere 4% today.

And when we see that the main victims of Islamist violence are Muslims, it is clear to everyone: At the end of the day, hate destroys the hater.

So if we wish to succeed in protecting our right to be different, if we want to have a future in the region, I believe we should stand together – Jews, Muslims and Christians. We will fight for the right of Christians everywhere to live their faith without fear, with the same passion with which we will fight for the right of Jews to live without fear.

We will fight against Islamophobia, but we need our Muslim partners to join the fight against Christianophobia and Judeophobia. Because at stake is our shared humanity...

The Arab world requires the courage to think and act differently. This change demands that the Arabs realize that they are not helpless victims. It demands that they open up to self-criticism, and to holding themselves accountable.

Up to this day, not a single history book in the Arab world questions the historic mistake of rejecting the establishment of the Jewish state. No prominent Arab academic has come out saying that if the Arabs would’ve accepted the idea of a Jewish state, there would’ve been two states, there would’ve been no war, and there would’ve been no refugee problem.

I see Israelis like Benny Morris, who dare to challenge the narratives of their leadership in Israel, taking personal risks in the quest of a truth that is not always comfortable for their people.

But I fail to find their Arab equivalents. I fail to see a debate questioning the wisdom of the destructive leadership of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Hussaini; or the unnecessary war launched by the Arab league in 1948, or any of the wars against Israel, in the years that followed until today. And I fail to see self-criticism in the Palestinian mainstream today about the use of terrorism, the launching of the second intifada, or the rejection of at least two Israeli offers in the last 15 years to end the conflict.

Self-reflection is not a weakness; it is a sign of strength. It brings forth our ability to overcome fear and face reality. It demands us to look sincerely into our decisions, and take responsibility for it.

Only the Arabs themselves can change their reality. By stopping the leaning on conspiracy theories and the blaming of outside powers – America, the Jews, the West or whoever – for all the problems. By learning from past mistakes, and by making wiser decisions in the future;

President Obama stood at the U.N. podium in front of the General Assembly and said: “The task of rejecting sectarianism and extremism is a generational task – a task for the people of the Middle East themselves. No external power can bring about a transformation of hearts and minds.”

Forward Thinking

I still didn’t tell you the rest of my family’s story in 1948.

After a long journey towards Lebanon, most of it by foot, my grandparents George and Vera reached Lebanon. They stayed there for many months. And while there, my grandmother gave birth to her first son, my uncle Sami.

When the war was over, they realized that they had been lied to. The Arabs did not win the war, as promised.

Nor did the Jews kill all the Arabs as they were told would happen.

My grandfather looked around him and saw nothing but a dead-end life as refugees. He looked at his young wife Vera – not yet 18, and his newborn son, and knew that in a place stuck in the past with no ability to look forward, there is no future for his family.

While his brothers and sisters saw their future in Lebanon and other Arab and Western countries, he thought otherwise. He wanted to go back to Jaffa, his hometown. Because he worked with Jews in the past and was a friend to them, he was not brainwashed with hatred.

My grandfather George did what few others would have dared – he reached out to those that his community saw as their enemies. He contacted friends from the electricity company, and asked for his help to get back. That friend not only was able and willing to help my grandfather get back, but in an extraordinary act of grace, he even helped him get his old job back at what has become the Israeli electricity company, making him perhaps the one of the first Arabs to work there.

Today, among my siblings and cousins we have accountants, teachers, insurance agents, hi-tech engineers, diplomats, factory managers, university professors, doctors, lawyers, investment consultants, managers of top Israeli companies, architects and – yes – electricians.

The reason that my family succeeded, the reason that today I am an Israeli diplomat – and not a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon – is because my grandfather had the courage to take a decision that was unthinkable to others. Rather than falling into despair, he found hope where no one dared to look for it. He chose to live among those who were considered his enemies, and to make them his friends...

Indeed, we cannot change the past. But we can mend the past and change the future.

Published: November 22, 2014