[News] Palestinian Leader Hanan Ashrawi On Feminism, Faith, and the Future of the Palestinian Cause

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Mon Jan 17 13:02:10 EST 2005



An interview with Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi on feminism, faith, and 
the future of the Palestinian cause

by Rose Marie Berger

Jan. 12,  2005


Hanan Ashrawi broke on to the global scene in 1988 during an interview 
between Israelis and Palestinians on ABC’s Nightline. Brilliant, 
articulate, pragmatic, and Christian - she surprised the world. Ashrawi’s 
father was a founder of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. She has 
been active in Palestinian leadership circles all her life. In 1991, Yasser 
Arafat appointed her as the official spokesperson of the Palestinian 
delegation to the Middle East Peace Process. She later served as 
Palestinian Minister of Higher Education and Research and as a member of 
the Palestinian Legislative Council for Jerusalem. In 1998, Ashrawi 
resigned from the Palestinian Authority in protest against political 
corruption and founded the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of 
Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She is an Anglican Christian, a 
feminist, an author, poet, and diplomat, and a brave proponent of 
nonviolent resistance in the most violent situation in the world. Hanan 
Ashrawi was interviewed in September 2004 by Sojourners associate editor 
Rose Marie Berger in Washington, D.C.

Sojourners: Your father was a doctor, writer, and founding member of the 
Palestinian Liberation Organization. How did your parents shape your 
political and spiritual perspective and commitments? Tell me about your 
family. I know that your father was very influential but your mother was 
too - in terms of your faith and also your political perspective.

Ashrawi: Well my father was a medical doctor, as you know. He was an 
intellectual. He was highly educated. He was a writer as well. And he was 
an advocate of women’s rights. He was quite progressive, socialist. My 
mother was very much a believer and she practiced her own faith. He was 
Greek Orthodox. She was Anglican Episcopalian. And when they got married, 
they got married in the Anglican church. And that’s where we were born and 
baptized. What can I say? They were both ahead of their times. Both active. 
My mother worked with him. She was educated. Both believed in human 
responsibility. My mother was much more, let’s say, she was calmer, laid 
back than my father who was more involved and more active in political 
human issues. And I describe him as a humanist more than anything else.

Sojourners: What were some of the key lessons that you learned as a girl 
and young woman.

Ashrawi: I wrote about this in my book. It’s out of print by now. It’s 
called This Side of Peace, published by Simon and Schuster. I learned not 
to accept limitations placed on me by others. My father said we raised you 
not to feel in any way that you are handicapped by your gender or your 
upbringing, so do not accept to be defined or limited by others. To be 
daring. To be courageous. To speak up. To speak out. To stand up. To do 
things on issues of justice and what you believe in. Also the essential 
value of the human being. and the power of the intellect, the mind, as well 
as the power of values of course, and in that sense I learned a lesson for 
example from my father’s treating of the Jewish prisoners of war during the 
war of 1948. He kept saying there are no different values to human life. 
Human lives are equal. And that has remained with me for a long time. And 
of course the value of peace and justice.

Sojourners: Say a little bit more about your father treating the Jewish 

Ashrawi: I don’t know that much. I just found out when I came back from 
studying abroad and I found some Jewish Israeli people in my house with my 
father. And I said, “What?! You are receiving Israelis in our house!” To 
me, at that time, that was traitorous. There was no fraternizing with the 
occupation. And he said, “Why don’t you hear what they have to say.” It 
turned out that they were people who had come to thank him for treating 
them and for being so human and considerate in the midst of that war. That 
was the way that I found out about it. Also the fact that in 1948 I was a 
baby when they left. So the person who got the truck or the vehicle in 
which my father put the family to leave Palestine was a doctor, a Jewish 
friend of his, a neighbor, so we, in a sense, became refugees from Tiberias.

Sojourners: Lead us in to how those values shaped your current political 
perspective. As you work and as you talk about the Palestinian and Israeli 
issue today, what are the main characteristics that you are looking for in 
terms of peace and human dignity?

Ashrawi: It’s not just peace and human dignity. First of all you need to 
have tremendous courage in order to speak out on behalf of peace and 
justice and human dignity and the integrity of life itself. This is very 
difficult given the fact that there has been so much devaluation of human 
lives and rights. The degradation of these values. And of course the 
violence and the cruelty and the fact that the Palestinians have been 
deprived of everything. And to be able to maintain hope and commitment and 
dedication and to tell people that you can not respond in kind. You can not 
do those things that you condemn when other do them to you. That doesn’t 
mean that it gives you license to do them yourself, particularly in terms 
of killing civilians.

But also in terms of speaking out and telling the truth. It’s very 
difficult because the truth is not a popular commodity. There has been 
tremendous populism on the one hand and a lot of rhetoric and excitement 
and on the other hand tremendous distortions and stereotypical approaches 
and racism particularly pertaining to the Palestinians so that we are 
excluded from human consideration. And I try very hard to break through 
both these things. And to address the issues as they are regardless. I’ve 
discovered that there is a tremendous response. The Palestinians tell me, 
even if what I say isn’t something that is happy or positive or what they 
want to hear, but the fact is that they respect the fact that I tell them 
the truth, that I respect them. I tell them the truth no matter how 
painful. This is very important. Because there has been enough manipulation 
of the facts, enough distortion, and warping of realities that the 
Palestinians deserve truth. I believe world public opinion needs to hear 
the truth and we need to challenge the prevailing version which is quite 
often erroneous, misleading, fabricated, and quite often racist when it 
comes to the Palestinians. So it’s a real challenge.

But to struggle for truth and peace in the middle of violence when your 
whole people are traumatized, when they are held captive, and they are 
really sitting ducks, they are targets, to an army, an occupation army that 
uses a no-holds-barred approach to Palestinians. To me it’s sometimes 
superhuman, but we have to keep at it. We have to keep, in a sense, not 
reinventing, but re-energizing people’s commitment to peace and negotiated 
settlement, rather than revenge and pain and a visceral response to our own 
victimization, which is the easiest thing to fall into.

Sojourners: When people are hurting so deeply?

Ashrawi: Yes, and so traumatized with no handle on reality because there is 
no hope. They don’t see any positive intervention. They don’t see any kind 
of recognition even of their victimization and their humanity. So, in a 
sense, to try to intrude on this pain and grief and loss and vulnerability 
by saying “no, you have to protect your own humanity and your own strength” 
this is an extremely difficult thing to ask.

Sojourners: What would you say to Christians, particularly Americans 
because of our connections to Israel? How can we support you? How can we 
live out our Christian values
?What do you want American Christians to know 
about the Palestinian situation and how can they support you in securing a 

Ashrawi: That’s exactly the kind of commitment and involvement that we 
need. I mean of course there has to be caritas, charity, when it comes to 
the Palestinians because we have been excluded. Unfortunately, the extreme 
churches, particularly the evangelicals and the Christian Right seem to 
think that we are dispensable and disposable. And that this marriage with 
the extreme Zionist movement and the neo-cons has undermined the chances of 
peace with justice and has dehumanized the Palestinians. So I believe it’s 
the role of the responsible, involved human and humane churches to address 
and redress the situation, to speak out and bear witness

Sojourners: so, specifically addressing the Zionists

Ashrawi: the Christian Zionists

Sojourners : and the Christian Right

Ashrawi: The Christian Right. Yes, of course, and the distortion and 
exclusion of the Palestinians that they promote. The influence they have on 
policy - it’s amazing. I've never seen [anything like] it. It's lethal. And 
of course this has created barriers between the American public and the 
Palestinian cause and has created some sort of automatic and blind 
identification with Israel. This is very negative when it comes to 
prospects for peace because it has given Israel blind support and a blank 
check into whatever it wants. And this is one, to bear witness, to
. I've 
seen many come in solidarity, and I've said where governments have failed, 
the people have succeeded, particularly individuals who came with the 
International Solidarity Movement, the grassroots international protection 
for the Palestinian people; we are seeing tremendous courage. And the human 

Sojourners : Like the story of Rachel Corrie.

Ashrawi: Yes, I mean
 To me that's heartbreaking. I can never think of 
Rachel without crying. She was just a remarkable young woman, really paid 
with her life. And I met her parents and I told them what I felt, but it's 
very hard. And people have died for what they believed in. I don't want 
people to die - I want people to live, of course - for what they believe 
in, for a sense of humanity, for, you know, their courage to stand up - 
literally, I mean. Literally and metaphorically, she stood up to the 
Israeli bulldozer and affirmed life in the face of destruction, and the 
human spirit and will, and she paid with her life. A young woman with so 
much to give, so much hope. Anyway.

Sojourners: So what about a Palestinian-based movement for nonviolence?

Ashrawi: It's not so much a movement. If you look at public opinion polls, 
you will see that the majority are still committed to peace. To me it's 
amazing that the Palestinian people as a whole - up to between seventy to 
eighty percent - are still committed to a negotiated settlement, and to a 
peaceful solution, even though many of them react viscerally to their 
to the violence exercised against them, and many of them see
and the 
violence practiced by some Palestinian factions as a response on kind, as a 
kind of revenge, and so on, an outlet - venting one's anger and one's 
frustration. But on the whole there has been a constant commitment to peace.

Now, within civil society of course, there are organizations, institutions, 
that still maintain this under--continue to try to articulate an agenda for 
peace based on active nonviolent resistance, even though many people are 
saying Israel understands only the language of violence because that's the 
language it uses against us and the language of power and so on. This sort 
of broad - I want to say coalition, but - a broad currency, a broad trend 
among Palestinians to try to re-legitimize the language, to re-gain, to 
reclaim our right to peaceful, to active - I would say proactive, intrusive 
- nonviolent resistance is very important. And at the same time, this arms 
Israel's use of military violence against the captive and largely 
defenseless population. Every once and a while we come up with statements. 
We come up with public statements that are published in the press and so 
on. But quite often we try to generate discussion on these issues. We have 
also meetings with different factions. Again, it's not easy, given the 

Sojourners: Is there a role for Christians particularly in that 
conversation, to be able to open up a little bit of political space, 
because they're a minority both in Israel and in Palestine?

Ashrawi: Yes the Palestinians--I mean the, well, in Israel they are 
Palestinians. There are no Israeli Christians per se, there're no Jewish 
Christians-- [so they are all] Palestinian Christians. Unfortunately yes, 
the numbers are dwindling. Even though we don't think of ourselves as a 
minority, because we don't like the sort of minority mentality, we believe 
we are the true expression of the authenticity and historical depths and 
culture that are still Palestine--still Palestinian identity. So in a 
sense, the Christian for the oldest, longest ties with the origins of 
Christianity, with the history of the land, even though there are many who 
claim they go back to pre-Christian, pre-Jewish days, even the Caananites 
and so on. The question is Christianity is part and parcel of our culture, 
our identity, and so we try to affirm that even though numerically we are 
decreasing. I don't know whether you can say there's a different discourse. 
Well, for objective conditions, relations with the Western churches and so 
on, some use different means. Organizations like Sabeel, like liberation 
theology and so on, make a difference in that sense, in that they 
articulate an agenda stemming from a Christian recognition of the role and 
formulation of peace. But on the whole, the Christians are part of the 
Palestinian national movement, and so you'll find them everywhere. You'll 
find them in the cabinet, you'll find them in the Palestinian Legislative 
 and probably in larger proportions than their actual numbers.

And historically the Christians have been more, let's say, radical
you look at the history of the revolution and the revolutionary movement, 
there are many Christians who lead the more left-wing radical movements, 
probably the more violent movements. So I don't know whether it's 
over-compensation. But there are different movements. Christians are part 
of the mosaic, part of the political-social fabric of Palestine, so you 
find them in every component.

Sojourners: And who is the leadership in the Palestinian party or the 
Palestinian movement now that needs our support, that needs to be nurtured, 

Ashrawi: Personally I believe in empowering the young and the women and all 
the democratic forces in Palestine. We are paying the price of a very 
simplistic polarization that I talked about earlier, an authority being 
perceived as corrupt or abusive, and an opposition that is perceived as 
violent and terroristic, so the cause and the people are paying the price. 
The majority are neither, that's the thing. The majority are human beings 
who just want to live in peace and dignity and freedom. And this is what we 
need to support. So we need to have elections. We need to see a new 
leadership emerge, with a legitimacy of a constituency that has elected 
them and therefore can hold them accountable. And this means working with 
the young and with the women and the disenfranchised and the weak in order 
to act, in order to help with the evolution of the Palestinian, let's say - 
I don't want to say a political elite - but a political culture that is 
more wedded to nation-building and to humanistic values and principles than 
to revolutionary values and principles that quite often are antithetical to 
nation-building, are incompatible with nation-building.

But one has to reach out really to the ordinary Palestinian - to the human 
being who feels vulnerable, who feels abandoned, quite often feels 
betrayed. Because it's not just that he or she is victimized. The fact of 
victimization is denied, and the victim is being blamed and labeled. So 
there's multiple victimization. There's no security, there's no protection. 
You can lose your life, your home, your land, because you've lost your 
freedom. You lose your dignity, you're being daily humiliated, daily 
deprived of the most basic needs. You've lost your livelihood, and quite 
often you've lost your loved ones. So that there's this deliberate daily 
cruelty, and there is no recognition of that, and there's no help, there's 
no assistance. At least, give us compassion. Basic compassion is missing. 
The compassion, the recognition, the formation of this humanity, let alone 
any type of protection. I've never seen such vulnerability on the one hand 
or cruelty on the other. And yet there is this deliberate bashing, 
exclusion, and distortion of the Palestinians. And that's what drives 
people to desperation sometimes. The truth is on our side. We need to get 
the truth out.

Sojourners: What should U.S. policy be toward Israel and toward Palestine?

Ashrawi: I wish I could do something about U.S. politics. The one thing it 
should not be is complicit with Israel. The U.S. is received as being 
complicit in the Occupation, not just in terms of the funding and in terms 
of the weapons that are used to kill and to shell Palestinians, but also in 
terms of the blanket protection that the U.S. gives to Israel to avoid any 
kind of accountability or blame. I think the U.S. has to learn the value of 
being an even-handed peace broker. A peace broker cannot take sides, and 
cannot, in a sense, vindicate the violations and abuses of the oppressor 
and of the occupier. There has to be a certain reaching out to the occupier 
and to understand that power politics and unilateralism and militarism 
cannot work, do not work. And they cannot be brought to bear in 
peacemaking. And if you keep your distance, the situation will not sustain 
itself - it will continue to degenerate, because there is a power imbalance 
- there is a military occupation – and there are a people desperately 
fighting for their lives. And, I described this at one point as the 
deliberate deconstruction of Palestine. And you cannot allow this to continue.

Sojourners: What's the connection between Jerusalem and Baghdad vis-a-vis 
Washington, D.C.?

Ashrawi: I think that's also a case of misplaced priorities. I said the 
intelligence failure, or the intelligence deficit, was not just 
intelligence in terms of spies and information about WMDs. People do not 
understand that the key to the stability and peace of the region is 
Palestine. That the gate within which the U.S. is always being measured- in 
terms of its standing, its integrity, its influence and so on - has always 
been the Palestinian Question, and the way they treat the Palestinians. 
That the region has been destabilized, and has been armed, and has been 
held back in terms of its development
because of the Palestinian Question, 
because of the tremendous injustice done to the Palestinians. Therefore, if 
the U.S. wants to rectify its historic legacy of misdirected, misguided, 
and just plain erroneous policy - [they need] just to address the 
Palestinian Question, to end the Occupation, to see us as a free people. We 
are capable of building a democratic, humanistic state based on the rule of 
law, and we can do that. But we are being constantly held back by the 
Occupation, the land threat, the horrific war, the assassinations, the 
encroachments, the daily, daily brutality exercised against us. And so in 
many ways, the U.S. does not see that this is the real address--this is the 
real key to the region.

And of course there was a very misguided and wrong approach to the "war on 
terrorism" (quote/unquote). Instead of addressing the longstanding 
grievances of the region, and the ills and the problems and conflicts that 
have to be resolved, they immediately superimposed terrorism on Iraq - 
which wasn't existing. I mean, of course Iraq was never a fundamentalist 
country, it never had any connections with Al Qaida, and it didn't have any 
WMDs and so on. So it doesn't take much intelligence to see that now - I 
mean, post-hoc. But it was very clear to people in the know, you know, 
about this. It was used as an excuse to settle historical scores. So now 
that the U.S. is seen as an occupier in the region, the linkage with Israel 
is very detrimental to the U.S., number one. And number two, they have 
really stirred up a hornets' nest. Look at what's happening in Iraq. You 
are going to see from Iraq, the generation of more extremism, more 
fundamentalism, more violence. The U.S. has done that with no sensitivity, 
no knowledge of the realities of the region. A real intelligence failure. 
And a serious lack of protection, of conceptualization of the future, and 
of the consequences of their actions. Don't go into a war without exit 
strategies and without knowing why you're going into a war. And without 
having a peace plan, and a post-war plan. And they did that, and it was not 
a war--it was an invasion, I mean.... But anyway, so, the connection to the 
Palestinians and to the Arab world is very clear: that justice to the 
Palestinians is the key to stability in the region.

Sojourners: Some people would say that they're going about it the other 
way. That they're trying to stabilize the region and that that will provide 
some openings to Palestinians

Ashrawi: That is not going to work. There is no way that - the only way to 
stabilize the region is through the Palestinian Question. Because the 
greatest liability to the U.S. is Israel and Israeli policies and the 
Israeli Occupation, in addition now, of course, to Iraq and the U.S.'s 
policy in Iraq. Of course, there the Abu Gharib prison scandal is a scandal 
because it was caught, but this has been ongoing with the Palestinians--the 
same methods used by Israel against the Palestinians are unacceptable. And 
also the linkage between Israel and the intelligence
the U.S. intelligence.

Sojourners: Has there been any revelation about Israeli trainers or 
torturers in Abu Gharib?

Ashrawi: Yes. We've heard about that. We cannot verify it, of course, but 
we've heard that mainly from American sources. And now with the Internet, 
of course, you have more access. The truth comes out more easily. But this 
is what we've heard. We've heard also of American agents being trained in 
Israel, and being trained by Israelis and being brought into the West Bank, 
even. We've heard of the School of the Americas training Americans. And of 
course there's the question of dual citizenship: I mean, somebody could be 
an Israeli and an American simultaneously. That's the one country where you 
can serve in two armies.

Sojourners: What gives you hope? I know that you're a poet and your 
background is in literature.

Ashrawi: Creativity, the imagination, yes
. If you don't have poetry in 
your soul, you can't survive. Really. Well, you need creativity and 
imagination, certainly, and we see very little of that these days, nothing 
except a destructive
imagine, I don't know if you can have it, but
 I think 
what gives me hope is the commitment to the Palestinian people, their 
essential human being, the fact that I see how for no fault of their own, 
the Palestinian people have paid an enormous price for being born in that 
part of the world, for being unwitting victims of history. And that kind of 
victimization, the human will and human spirit to endure, you know, 
something that ultimately has to triumph. And I've seen how despite all 
attempts, the Palestinians have not been defeated or broken, and it's that 
human spirit that gives me hope.

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners. To learn more about 
Hanan Ashrawi visit <http://www.miftah.org/>www.miftah.org.

The Freedom Archives
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San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 863-9977
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