The Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi has spent the last 50 years trying to make peace, and at age 71, can attest that that’s a lot harder than making war. “It’s not for the faint-hearted,’’ she told the crowd at Unity Temple on Monday. “I started when I was a young undergraduate in hot pants, and now I’m a grandmother in a pantsuit.”
A non-practicing Anglican born into one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, she’s also an icon to many in the audience, who cheered hardest for her feminist shout-outs, like, “This is not a religious conflict. It is a man-made one, and definitely not a woman-made one.” Women in hijab crowded around her for selfies after she spoke.
“I grew up in Palestine,” said one woman in the audience, Samira Hussein, a professor at Johnson County Community College, “so when I saw her on TV ... I would say oh my God, this is my hero. As a Muslim woman — even though Dr. Ashrawi is a Christian — her sense of justice, and how she’s stood up to the powerful Israeli lobby and today to see her alive and in person? I needed to hear her voice.”
Maybe 20 percent of those at Unity, where she was the guest of Park University, raised their hands when a man in the crowd wondered how many who’d turned out were themselves Palestinian. Every question from the audience was both admiring and on the level of those who have lived an issue. But it’s those who’ve never heard of Ashrawi whom I wish had filled a few of the empty seats.
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What Ahmed Awad, a Palestinian nephrologist who came here as a 17-year-old refugee, said he often finds when he tries to discuss the occupied territories is “all they know is Moses and this was their land.” Which thus belongs to the Jewish state, period.
Complicated as the situation in the Middle East is, it’s true that the dominant media and political and religious narrative in this country is overwhelmingly Israel’s view.
Ashrawi lived in this country for years, while in exile from her birthplace in what’s now the occupied West Bank. When the Six Day War broke out in 1967, she was a student at the American University of Beirut. Israel didn’t allow her to rejoin her family for the next six years, which she spent in part getting a doctorate at the University of Virginia.
But because Palestinians are “always presented by our adversaries” she doesn’t return here “to a neutral territory,” but instead “to a territory where we’ve been maligned,” she said in an interview. Then there are the “frozen cliches, glibly repeated.”
“Like, ‘we have shared values.’ What shared values with the occupation do you have? Oppression? Discrimination? A genuine democracy does not occupy and enslave a whole people. And ‘our greatest ally and the only democracy in the region.’ It’s a military occupation! And the labeling of Palestinians as terrorists. Even when you work for peace, you’re a terrorist.”
Palestinians only briefly held out hope that President Barack Obama would help their cause. Then “the Israelis accused him of siding with the Palestinians, and he spent the next seven years trying to prove that he’s good for Israel.” Under the Trump administration, the situation has only become worse: “This is the first administration that has not stopped settlements or called them illegal.” Our new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, supports the settlements, as has the family foundation of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who according to Trump is in charge of peace in the Middle East, and is working on “the ultimate deal.”
Last week’s reconciliation between the Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions had better stick, she says. Not only because Hamas couldn’t govern, but because “this rift has worked against the cause itself, and enabled Israel to label everybody as terrorists.”
What Ashrawi would love more than anything, she told the crowd at Unity, is to spend more time with her two grandsons. But until her people can breathe free, she said, that’s unlikely.