The importance of being flippant

Steven Salaita

Mondoweiss /  May 9, 2022

Don’t ask Palestinians to guarantee the Jewish settler’s peace of mind when we know damn well that it can be accomplished only by our disappearance.

Mohammed al-Kurd, the young Palestinian poet and activist made famous because his home near Jerusalem was stolen by a guy from Long Island who looks like a slightly more unkempt Captain Caveman, recently found himself in yet another scandal. (Any vocal Palestinian with name recognition is destined to live a scandalous existence.) 

During an Israeli Apartheid Week event at Duke University, somebody asked what the slogan “from the river to the sea” means for Israeli Jews. Al-Kurd reportedly answered, “I don’t care.  I truly, sincerely don’t give a f….” The audience “roared its approval.” 

Unsurprisingly, accounts of this exchange (among others) stirred vigorous reaction.  Legions of people accused Al-Kurd of the usual stuff:  terrorism blah blah blah antisemitism yada yada yada promoting violence dum dum dum. Legions of people also came to Al-Kurd’s defense, sometimes philosophically, sometimes on principle.

Let’s leave aside the exact wording of the exchange, which is at least partly disputed.  I’m not offering a report on events at Duke University that evening and Al-Kurd has proved incredibly capable of speaking for himself. 

Suppose that Al-Kurd did say what was attributed to him. It might seem like a blithe or callous reaction, but in reality a vital sensibility informed his recalcitrance. Many of us who speak to U.S. audiences about Palestine have almost certainly wanted to say something similar during a Q&A. I’ve seen it happen on at least a few occasions. 

The question “but what about the Israelis?” presents itself as innocent, perhaps even crucial, but its underlying rhetoric is insidious.  Anyone with experience among the colonized will understand why: it transforms discussion of Palestine into a referendum on Israel’s primacy, which again puts the Palestinian in a subordinate position. It informs the audience that Zionism must be affirmed before the Palestinian can speak of liberation. 

A dismissive response to that question is less a statement of indifference about the fate of Israeli Jews than an unwillingness to defer analysis of Palestine’s national question. It indicates that the speaker will not prioritize the settler’s comfort at the expense of the native’s well-being.  It also refuses to validate the imagined violence of the native. The dismissive response is so controversial in part because it demands a kind of introspection and humility the settler is ill-equipped to practice. 

The dismissiveness suggests that no easy answer is on offer.  Decolonization isn’t meant to be leisurely. It’s not a riddle with a precise solution. It portends serious changes that beneficiaries of Zionism are loath to acknowledge.  It will permanently alter the relationship between Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab. It won’t be “peaceful” as imagined by liberals of the dominant culture. But it does aim to create a world far better than the one brought about by colonization. 

The settler’s insecurity is not equivalent to the native’s liberation. The two phenomena needn’t be discussed in tandem, as if a secure colonizer is more apt to good behavior. We cannot arrive at the problem of Palestinian dispossession—never mind a solution—by humoring the same old majoritarian vanity. Certain questions, like the one at Duke, tacitly stipulate that the settler is unwilling to sacrifice any meaningful advantage in order to make the native’s life better. 

Palestinians in North America are constantly asked to placate and appease the settler. Even if we wanted to, it’s an impossible task.  Nothing we say will satisfy them. Without drawing a clear line, they’ll have us hemming and hawing until we promise to go away altogether. 

We shouldn’t overlook the environment in which these exchanges occur. Palestinian speakers regularly suffer hostility in the lead up to their events without a scintilla of concern from those demanding security for Israelis. (You can bet that anyone who asks about the future of Israeli Jews was complaining to university officials a few days earlier.) Local Zionist groups campaign to prevent Palestinian guests from speaking. Their campaigns often go national and so Palestinian speakers will have been defamed across multiple platforms before even hitting the dais. (This is certainly true of Al-Kurd.) The power imbalance is severe and so the Palestinian speaker might want to be assured of the Zionist’s good intentions before addressing hypothetical dangers.  

We can’t know exactly what Al-Kurd meant with his response, but it’s not difficult to understand his motivation:  he was there to talk about Palestine, not to validate tired acts of Zionist projection. Maybe he didn’t want to address the topic in that particular moment, in front of that particular audience.  Maybe he was upset at being asked to assure the safety of the same people determined to make his life miserable. Maybe he was saying that he truly, sincerely doesn’t give a fuck about the approval of white Americans. And maybe, just maybe, there was an element of requital in his answer:  here, have a bit of that anxiety you force us to endure every waking moment. 

Don’t misunderstand the episode at Duke: Palestinians are always up for a good debate.  It’s an activity at which we excel. We have no need of defamation and snitching. The facts are at our disposal. We are happy to talk. We are accustomed to telling stories in unfriendly settings.  Just don’t ask us to guarantee the settler’s peace of mind when we know damn well that it can be accomplished only by our disappearance. 

Steven Salaita’s most recent book is Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine