The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict Isn't About Religion

Question: What perspective has your personal experience given \r\nyou on the Israel/Palestine conflict? 

Najla Said: The\r\n issue in Palestine and Israel is that there's a society that does not \r\ngive equal rights to one group of the population. It is that simple, \r\nit's a human rights issue. And in the same way that we were outraged at \r\nthe Apartheid government in South Africa, and any injustice that we see \r\nanywhere in the world, we need to look at this critically and see that \r\nthe reality is... the only reason I’m even allowed to go to Israel is \r\nbecause I have an American passport. And I'm lucky enough to have an \r\nAmerican passport because my grandfather came in 1911, or whatever year,\r\n and went back to Palestine and that’s how my father was able to come \r\nhere. If I didn’t have an American passport, I don’t know if I would be \r\nallowed to travel to the country where my father was born and his \r\nancestors come from. So that right there is strange. 

I mean, \r\nwithout getting into the specific nitty-gritty of how they divide the \r\nland and how the laws work, the simple fact is, it’s not about Arabs \r\nhating Jews and Jews hating Arabs, and Muslims hating Jews and Jews \r\nhating Muslims, it’s about the struggle for equality in human rights, \r\nthat’s it, that's what it’s about. What the solution is? I’m not really \r\nsure. I have a personal belief that people should be able to live in one\r\n secular state and believe what they believe and be who they want to be.\r\n That’s tricky, a lot of Israelis and Jewish people see that as a \r\nproblem because then there’s no Jewish state. But... I don’t know the \r\nsolution really, but I do know that the first step is acknowledging the \r\ninequality and focusing on that and approaching the issue as, "Okay, how\r\n can we make a government that gives equal rights? Whatever you call the\r\n country, whatever you’re going to do, how can we make sure that someone\r\n who is Palestinian, or... is allowed to travel from point A to point B \r\nwithout having to go through 3,000 checkpoints just because they happen \r\nto be born Muslim and Palestinian, or whatever the case."
\r\nBut I’m also frustrated, as I said, that it’s become about religion... \r\nThe other thing that I hate is, "It’s been going on for centuries," \r\nbecause it hasn’t. And I think it’s really important that, one of the \r\nmost important things to me, and in this play, to do, was to, first of \r\nall, talk about the Middle East that my parents both grew up in, which \r\nwas pre-1948, where, in Lebanon there were Lebanese Christians, there \r\nwere Lebanese Muslims, and there were Lebanese Jews. Then, after World \r\nWar II and the establishment of the State of Israel those people left, \r\nthe Jewish Lebanese and a lot of them went to Israel, that’s totally \r\nunderstandable. But what happened was not that; a lot of what happened \r\nwas in Europe. There was a World War II, there were Nazis, there was a \r\nlot going on, the English had a lot to do with why Palestine became \r\nIsrael, and I think that the saddest thing that we can do is say, “It \r\ndoesn’t have anything to do with me. I’m American, I’m not Jewish, I’m \r\nnot Arab." same with Europeans. Europeans should not be like, “Oh, the \r\nAmericans are responsible for fixing it, it’s not our problem." The \r\nEuropeans are a large part of why there is a problem. So the first \r\nmisunderstanding is just that... the Arabs were probably the only people\r\n at the time who were not cruel to Jews or Anti-Semitic... at the time \r\nof Hitler and World War II, Jews lived in Arab countries. And then the \r\nState of Israel was founded and then all of this trouble began.  So the \r\nfirst thing that really gets me is that when people say "It's been going\r\n on for centuries, since the Bible"—this is not the reality, this is a \r\nmodern political phenomenon that we need to all look at and see the \r\nrealities of what is going on and why it’s going on.
\r\nSo I think that for me, I find it really frustrating when people say \r\nthat, it’s not just an issue Palestinians and Lebanese and Syrians and \r\nIraqis care about, or even just American Jews. Everyone should care, \r\neveryone should know, because we’re all sort of complicit in it, and \r\nit’s not about, you know, liking one person better than the other. If \r\nyou support Palestinians, it doesn’t mean that you are denying the \r\nHolocaust or saying that Jewish people have not been persecuted. There’s\r\n much more complexity in the issue and I think that I really wish that \r\nwe could all sort of get through the... I don’t know how it’s going to \r\nbe done, to be honest with you, and I think on both sides, I don’t know \r\nhow you stop. I do know that there are human interactions, one-on-one, \r\nor two-on-two, or like a small group of people, they come together. \r\nLet’s say, Palestinians, Israelis, they come together and they speak, \r\nand they don’t disagree on it, they don’t agree on everything, but they \r\nfind a human connection. But for some reason, on the larger level, we \r\ncan’t recreate that and I find that overwhelming and frustrating. 

Question:\r\n You’ve said that Palestine is more an idea for you than a concrete \r\nplace. Why? 

Najla Said: When my dad passed away, a \r\nlot of people were like, “Why did you bury him in Lebanon in a Quaker \r\ncemetery?” Because we buried him in my mom’s village, which is a \r\nChristian Lebanese village. So people who know enough about Middle East \r\npolitics were like, "Oh, Lebanese Christians don’t like Palestinians. So\r\n why was he buried there? He should have been buried in Palestine, your \r\nfather was the symbol of Palestine." The funny thing is, my father lived\r\n in Palestine until he was about 11, and even within that time, he was \r\nback and forth to Egypt and then after that, he was in Egypt, and then \r\nhe came to America at 14 and had been here ever since, until he died. So\r\n 50 years in America... more than that. And he was born with an American\r\n passport, too. 

So, Palestine the place... it’s not that \r\nmy father was fighting, we went to visit his house, but he didn’t want \r\nto go inside. My father did not want to move into his house and get it \r\nback and say, "This is my house and my land." My father just felt that \r\nas a Palestinian in America... when he started speaking out about \r\nPalestinians, he had achieved some success in his field, which was \r\ncomparative literature and literary criticism, and he felt that he had a\r\n voice and that it was important that he say something about what he \r\nknew to be the reality of the situation. Which was: "These people are \r\nnot being treated fairly in any way, this is not a, you know, at the \r\ntime, you know, Israel is not a democracy, these people are not given \r\nrights, and it’s my duty as a Palestinian to say that to you and be the \r\nvoice of people who can’t speak for themselves."

You can’t really\r\n help if people start to idolize you or start seeing you as the son of \r\nPalestine. And to this day, people say, "I didn’t realize you weren’t \r\nMuslim." And I'm like, "Why does it matter?" You know? I mean, Arabs say\r\n that, because they want my father to represent something specific for \r\nthem, so people have given him this mantle, and my father did not walk \r\naround with a keffiyah, an Arab scarf, on.  He wasn’t a revolutionary in\r\n that sense. He wrote and he was a professor and he wore western clothes\r\n and he wore very fancy clothes that he got in England. And he \r\nidentified more than anything, which I say as well, as my mom even says,\r\n even though she lived most of, a lot of her life in Lebanon... if \r\nthere’s any place we connect to, it’s New York. So my father didn’t \r\nreally feel like he belonged anywhere, or that Palestine was a place he \r\nwanted to be, but it was purely an example of what a human rights issue \r\nis. It’s a situation where people are, because of their ethnicity, not \r\ngiven the same rights as someone else. And that's why, to him, the \r\nstruggle for Palestine was a struggle for human rights. It was not a \r\nstruggle for Muslims or Christians or Jews, and against Jews or for, it \r\nwas simple. And I think, although I still feel that my connection to \r\nPalestine is tenuous and difficult to figure out, because I really don’t\r\n feel a connection to the place or the struggle at times, because it’s \r\nbecome so distorted... at the same time, I think it, it affects me \r\ndeeply, not just because my ancestors are from there, but because as a \r\nhuman being who’s sensitive, it’s sad. And it’s not fair that people on \r\nboth sides are living in fear and sadness and hatred when it doesn’t \r\nhave to be that way, I think. 

And I think one of the things I \r\nalways say is my dad was a really sensitive person and I think a lot of \r\nhis reaction to what he saw and he knew was just from a purely human \r\nsensitive point of view, like, "That's not fair!" And so that’s how I \r\nfeel as well, I think. 

Question: How do you feel about\r\n the controversy surrounding your father’s work? 

Najla \r\nSaid: There were things that I definitely... I won't say I disagree \r\nwith, but I may not find as important or intellectually. I’m speaking of\r\n literature and such, but what I tend to do is, one of the things about \r\nmy dad that was, and he said this a lot, he did not want disciples, he \r\ndid not want people to just agree with him. There were stories of \r\nstudents in his class using jargon from comparative literature and him \r\nbeing like, "That’s not your word, that’s Foucault's word. Choose your \r\nown word." He wanted people to disagree with him, as long as they had \r\ntheir own ideas and their own thoughts, and that was always what was \r\nmost important to him, it was never that people follow him. 

So \r\nthat’s been interesting also, in terms of what I said before about \r\nPalestinians and how they want him to be this, that. My father’s last \r\nwish, he did not ever want people to idolize him and take what he said \r\nas gospel. He wanted people to constantly challenge and constantly ask \r\nquestions and constantly... so that’s the only thing in terms of his \r\nwork and his intellectual legacy that frustrates me. Which is that when \r\npeople dismiss his ideas and say, you know, I don’t agree with him, \r\nblah, blah, blah. He would've said, "Fine, but what do you believe?" and\r\n encourage you to argue, and I think that people are mistaken in \r\nthinking that he would've been like, "No, I'm right, I'm right, I'm \r\nright, I'm right," because he wouldn't. So that’s the only thing in that\r\n realm that actually annoys me a little. 

I think his work speaks\r\n for itself, and I, I say very clearly, I may be his daughter, I may \r\nhave been influenced him, but I can’t defend someone’s body of work, \r\nespecially if it has nothing to do with me. And I'm, as I said, open to \r\npeople, as he was, criticizing his work, what I'm not open to is nasty \r\nmisinterpretations of him as a human being, which I think is really \r\ndifficult, especially in this day and age with the Internet and stuff. \r\nBecause people believe what they read and a lot of people have opinions \r\nand even when I did my play, they were like, "Oh, I thought your dad \r\nwas, da, da, da, da..." And It’s because they write it on Wikipedia. But\r\n I don’t know who wrote that, someone’s opinion of who he was and what \r\nhe did. So, I think anyone, Michael Jackson's kids can say this, you \r\nknow, it’s hard when you have to see nasty stuff written all over the \r\nplace because everyone has access to the Internet now and everyone can \r\nvoice their opinion and it’s frustrating that people take what they read\r\n as fact. 

Recorded on May 11, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

The playwright says the situation in the Mideast isn't about Mulsims in conflict with Jews, or even about land—it's a human rights issue.

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