By Ramzy Baroud
At a recent New York event, Ian Williams, president of the Foreign Press Association, told an approving audience that it is time “to reclaim the narrative on Palestine.”
The phrase “reclaiming the narrative” is relatively new to the Palestinian discourse. Years ago, the mere concept, let alone its implementation, was quite alien. The pro-Israel crowd refused, and still refuses, to acknowledge that Palestinians, their history and political discourse matter, while some in the pro-Palestinian movement relegated Palestinian voices as if they were simply incapable of articulating a coherent narrative.
For many years, I, along with other Palestinian intellectuals, raged against the misrepresentation and marginalization of Palestine and the Palestinians, not only by Israel and its allies in the mainstream media, but also through the elitism that existed within the Palestinian movement itself.
Hearing Williams utter these words was quite satisfying. More important was the context in which these words were used. The event, “Distant Voice No More? Giving Rise to a New Generation of Palestinian Journalists,” was hosted by the recently formed Palestine Deep Dive and co-hosted by the Foreign Press Association. The deep dive was created in order to challenge the common narrative on Palestine and Israel that has dominated the corporate media for decades. This new organization has done an impressive job in a fairly short period of time.
Among those in attendance was rock star Roger Waters, who has become an icon for the Palestine international solidarity movement in the same way that many of his songs, including “Another Brick in the Wall,” came to symbolize global support for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
At the same event, Columbia University professor and Palestinian author Rashid Khalidi launched his book “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine” and spoke about the history of Palestine and the significance of personal experiences in the Palestinian discourse. His talk was directed mainly at his target audience — young Palestinian intellectuals and activists.
Young Palestinians were at the center of the entire discussion, including Mohammed El-Kurd, brother of Muna, who both continue to lead popular resistance against the ethnic cleansing of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem.
In fact, awareness of the significance of the Palestinian narrative has been growing for years. Before we consider the reason behind this position shift, we ought to remember why Palestinians were expunged from their own history and political reality in the first place.
Historically, the Palestinian narrative was denied altogether, as the Palestinian people — in the words of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir — “didn’t exist.” When a people do not exist, their history vanishes too, their culture is erased and, by extension, their political aspirations become irrelevant. Only Israel existed — and mattered — within Western political and academic circles.
However, when Palestinians began registering in the global consciousness as a people with a legitimate claim to freedom, they were not immediately endowed with all the rights and respect that a nation of such rooted culture, impressive history and unmatched courage deserved. They were still relegated and assigned the role of the “terrorist” and, occasionally, hapless victim.
The latter notion, in particular, influenced the way that many sympathetic historians wrote about Palestine, corrupting even the perception of many genuine activists who believed that they, not the Palestinians, were more capable of dismantling the Israeli Zionist propaganda. According to this line of thinking, Palestinians can serve the role only of the spectator, providing endless streams of photos, videos and tragic numbers illustrating their victimization.
Of course, there were exceptions. Powerful Palestinian voices, such as the late Edward Said, Hisham Sharabi, Ghada Karmi and Khalidi himself, have insisted on the centrality of Palestine to the Palestinian discourse.
In mainstream Western media, Palestinians also made occasional appearances, but only within acceptable limits and amid restrictive language. Palestinian Authority officials, dubbed “moderates,” represented the “good Palestinian” to CNN viewers and readers of the New York Times. All others were deemed terrorists, radicals and extremists and, thus, completely ignored, even though, plainly, they were much closer to the true aspirations of Palestinians, especially when compared with the corrupt PA elites.
However, even those chosen few were eventually canceled out, especially during the Donald Trump era, yet still under the Biden administration. As long as there is no peace process to speak of, the token PA Palestinian is of no interest to the US government and, therefore, the US media.
However, the change toward a genuine Palestinian intellectual and media representation is real. It is taking place not because of the benevolence of corporate media or some moral awakening of politicians, but because of the Palestinian people themselves.
While Palestinian factions continue to feud, fighting for their political interests, a unified Palestinian generation of intellectuals is on the rise, inspired by the Palestinian people’s unity at home. For these intellectuals, the rights of the Palestinian people take priority over factions, ideologies and political privilege, not only in the Occupied Territories but throughout historic Palestine and the world.
The shattering events in Palestine in May must not simply be classified as just another Israeli war and another “round of violence.” They represented a paradigm shift in the history of Palestine, where the Palestinians emerged less factional and more unified than ever before. This unity can also be found in a new political discourse championed by Palestinian intellectuals worldwide.
The fact that we are now speaking candidly about the need to “reclaim the narrative on Palestine,” and are being met not by confused looks but by thunderous applause, speaks volumes about the paradigm shift that is underway. It is now the responsibility of young Palestinian activists to take the helm and truly communicate the message of the Palestinian people as they continue to fight for freedom and justice.
This is not a mere intellectual exercise. Without genuine and engaged Palestinian intellectuals, the world’s priorities will continue to gravitate toward Israeli priorities, and toward US interests and the subsequent fraudulent language about “peace,” “security” and such. This misleading narrative must be entirely removed from the discussion on Palestine.
Indeed, for Palestine to be free, for the Palestinian people to achieve their full rights and for the right of return for Palestinian refugees to be honored, the story of Palestine has to be told by the Palestinians themselves.