From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*
Issue: 21 May 1998
Last Friday, the Coalition of Mosques in the Washington area called for a prayer service in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. The service was attended by almost 1,000 people, according to the sponsors of the event. On the same day, The Washington Times published a whole page paid advertisement commemorating "The 50th Anniversary of the Loss of Palestine", which listed "a few troubling facts" about the state of Israel. The Washington Post had refused to print the same advertisement unless the sponsors agreed "to soften the language" -- which they refused to do.
The participants in the event which took place in Lafayette Park expressed their solidarity with the Palestinian people, and praised First Lady Hillary Clinton's "courageous stand" when she announced two weeks ago that she personally supported the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
In recent weeks, the American public has been subject to a massive barrage of elegies in praise of Israel at the occasion of its 50th anniversary: celebrations at the Kennedy Centre; CBS's Hollywood-style two-hour special about Israel, which featured President Bill Clinton praising the Jewish state for "making the desert bloom"; Vice-President Al Gore speaking of Israel as the fulfillment of a Biblical promise; special TV programmes and newspaper and magazine supplements.
All this was "too much and too disgusting, especially when the Palestinian element is completely and deliberately denied," one participant at the prayer gathering said.
Last Friday's gathering represented the culmination of weeks of alternative events organised in the US by Arab Americans and supporters of the Palestinian national struggle. At Georgetown University in Washington DC, the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies and the university's Arab Club organised a programme of activities which opened with a lecture by Hisham Sharabi, Palestinian history professor at Georgetown University, in which he asked: "Will the Palestinians be the Jews of the 21st century? Perhaps. But they will not be the Zionists of the 21st century."
The Georgetown University programme covered various aspects of the 50-year Palestinian experience, as well as the special nature of American-Israeli relations. In the month-long series called "50 Years of Occupation", topics discussed in different panels included: "human rights"; "selective morality: US aid to Israel"; "Zionism and its discontents"; and "facts, lies and videotapes: media reporting."
The series also included a screening of the film "Jerusalem, an occupation set in stone," and closed with a speech by Palestinian minister and human rights activist, Hanan Ashrawi, about the future of Palestine. During the same period, Georgetown's Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies also held a photo exhibition on "the Palestinian experience" and hosted Palestinian-American poet Lisa Majjaj, who lectured on "narrating the diaspora: Palestinian literature in the US."
A few weeks earlier, on 9 April, a full-page advertisement commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Deir Yassin massacre appeared in The Washington Post, under the headline: "Remember". Though there was nothing in that advertisement that Arabs did not know, it was a shock to those unaware of the bloody history of the creation of the state of Israel.
Two days before the publication of The Washington Post advertisement, Georgetown University's Gaston Hall was the gathering place for a Deir Yassin remembrance meeting. Speakers in the meeting included Prof. Dan McGowan, founder of the "Deir Yassin Remembered" campaign, and Ahmed Assad, a Deir Yassin survivor who was 15 when the massacre took place. McGowan described the work completed, and what still is to be done by "Deir Yassin Remembered".
The accomplishments include a new book, "Remembering Deir Yassin," maps and a Web site. The present challenge is to get Palestinian support for a memorial to be built in Deir Yassin for the victims of the massacre.
The events organised by the Arab Club at Georgetown University were repeatedly challenged by the Georgetown Israel Association. Members of the association first tried to have many of the events cancelled, noting that the main subject and target of the lectures was to counterpoint the celebration of the birth of Israel. When their attempt failed, they tried, through administrative channels, to change the name of the series "50 Years of Occupation", questioning the accuracy of the word "occupation."
Members of the Israel Association at Georgetown voiced their doubts concerning the identity and the intentions of those who might participate in, or support, or finance these events. They distributed and posted hate flyers on campus, both anonymous and under the pseudo-name of "Concerned Georgetown Students." They accused the organisers and their guests of being "anti-semite" and "denying the Holocaust".
Finally, they tried to mobilise public opinion outside the university campus turning the whole issue into a topic of concern for local and national Jewish circles. The Jewish weekly Forward claimed that at stake was the issue of federal funding of some studies in the university, especially those related to the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies, which -- as it happened -- was not financially sponsoring this series of lectures and activities.
The front-page story on the 24 April issue of Forward screamed in the headline "Uncle Sam Funds 'Hate 101' at Georgetown Teach-In". The story warned: "Check out how Uncle Sam is celebrating Israel's 50th birthday with your tax dollars." Though there was plenty of evidence of squandering tax dollars on commemorating 50 years of Israel's existence around Washington, the events at Georgetown were certainly not among them.
While the debate was raging on campus,The Hoya, the university's newspaper, provided the too-often silenced voices with an opportunity to be heard. The moment the controversy reached the mainstream media, however, the hawkish, pro-Israeli voices were loud enough to deafen all ears.
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.