Yesterday my book club gathered to discuss the novel _Mornings in Jenin_. We noted that author Susan Abulhawa has been criticized for writing only one side of the story. That is also a criticism that I hear from my Jewish friends when I tell about my experiences with Palestinians during my two-week trip last fall. My response is that the world has heard the Israeli narrative for 60 years and it is important to hear the Palestinian narrative. Susan Abulhawa takes this a step further and insists that even those who recognize the many wrongs perpetrated on the Palestinian people have no right to criticize the Palestinian narrative. It is their narrative. It is not for us (even sympathizers like myself) to tell Palestinians what they “ought” do to. It’s a good reminder that we can walk alongside the oppressed and even advocate for them, but their stories are their own and we must take our direction from them. Susan’s article is below.

1 First they stole our books, then they took our story

(This article was originally published at The Palestine Chronicle)

by Susan Abulhawa on February 17, 2013 28

I finally watched The Great Book Robbery at the University of Pennsylvania this weekend with some friends. It’s a film documenting Israel’s systematic looting of over 70,000 books from Palestinian public and private libraries after Jewish gangs in Palestine proclaimed the state of Israel and ethnically cleansed the native population.

The film itself is excellent and I have a lot of good things to say about it. But I was bothered by a certain element, at the very end, which was repeated by the Director, Benny Brunner, who was at the showing to answer questions. So I raised my hand and asked a question about it. Mr Brunner became very defensive.

His reaction made me think and re-think on a topic that already preoccupies me on a near daily basis – namely, the Palestinian narrative: who tells it, in what context is it told, how is it told, and, ultimately, who owns it. The importance of such a discussion regarding a people’s narrative should not be underestimated, particularly in instances of oppression and ethnic cleansing.

Putting aside the single, albeit important, element that bothered me in the film, and the film director’s unfortunate reaction to uncomfortable questions, I will first tell you everything that was right and good about this documentary. For starters, it unveils another facet of the Zionist project to strip the indigenous Palestinians of everything tangible and intangible, not merely out of pure greed and opportunism, but also to necessarily fill in the various gaps and requirements of manufacturing a Jewish state in the 20th century. This documentary deals with our books – some ancient, others contemporary; some rare one-of-a-kind books, others reproduced. Most of them were personal, all were historic, and each was a piece of Palestinian cultural and intellectual heritage and identity.

As Zionists did with our homes, bank accounts, photographs, farms, orchards, and all remaining worldly possessions, they also stole our books. A large number of them were looted from wealthy families from Jerusalem and Haifa, and in the process of watching this documentary, the viewer gets a sense of the cultured and highly-educated Palestinian society that was dispossessed of home and history by foreign Jewish newcomers. One man in the audience made reference to this in a comment to the director. This film clearly changed the image of Palestinians in his mind from something other than cultured, to people he could relate to. That says something about the film’s power.

Several Palestinian personalities were featured, including Nasser Nashashibi, whose tears fell as he spoke of the loss of his library. Ghada Karmi, too, was in the film. Footage showed her returning to her home in Qatamon and finding the same lemon tree and porch tiles from her youth. Another poignant interview was with a Palestinian by the name of Ahmed Batrawi. He described himself as a prisoner of war who was forced to work and to clear out other Palestinian homes, including his own, and turn over all loot to Zionist authorities. Although the director did not mention this, all evidence points to Batrawi having been in one of the many forced labor camps that Israel apparently established just 4 years after Nazis closed the last of their forced labor camps. Little is known of these camps and I first heard of them from Dr Salman Abu Sitta, whose research into the archives of the Swiss Red Cross revealed 5 camps with 6,360 prisoners who were forced into slave labor after 1948. But I digress.

The story was haunting and compelling. It provoked anger in me that plunged into a depth of sadness and loss. I think it would seem silly to some to mourn old books, especially when there is so much more to mourn, from stolen futures to extinguished lives. But perhaps it is precisely for the magnitude of our loss that our books, our intellectual heritage and narrative, matter so much.

Now I’ll tell you what bothered me about this film. Toward the end, text appeared on the screen to tell us that no attempts have ever been made to return any of these stolen books (marked abandoned property in the Israeli national library). Immediately after, there was text indicating that there has also been no organized Palestinian demand for these books to be returned. My well-honed antennae perked up with this statement and I sat through much of the Q&A session ruminating about the unspoken meaning of those words, particularly as they were coming from an Israeli filmmaker. In one of his responses to questions, he made another reference to Palestinian inability to coalesce around a demand for those books, “whose ownership is easily proven.”

It was here that I raised my hand. I asked the first of my questions, which didn’t pertain to what really annoyed me: “Palestinians can prove ownership of nearly all of Israel, what makes you think that demanding our books back would get a result different than demanding our homes back?” He said it didn’t matter whether we got them back or not, what mattered was the demand.

It seems that Israelis, especially those referred to as “leftists” can’t help but to lecture Palestinians. The kind of paternalistic finger wagging the director was doing seemed so natural. Even when I questioned him about it, he was indignant and self-assured in his right to criticize.

I reminded him that they – yes, he is part of the “they” – have taken everything from us and with what gall, with what right, did he think he could wag his finger at us when heroes like Samer Issawi are dying of hunger in their prisons.

He didn’t get it. And few in the audience understood my perspective. What an angry, ungrateful Palestinian I was being! This Israeli was on our side and here I was jumping all over the poor guy. Even the Palestinian young woman who organized the event stood up to defend Mr Brunner. I asked her sit down if she was going to try to squash this discussion because he, the director, should be able to answer uncomfortable questions.

Mr Brunner defended his position and said he did indeed have a right to criticize Palestinians. He said the books were part of his history, too. I disagreed. The legacy of theft was all, and is all, he can claim of those books. Anything else is as ridiculous and laughable as “Israeli couscous” and “Israeli hummus”.

Mr Brunner further lectured that an ideal “solution” to the problem of these stolen books would be that photocopied replicas remain in the Israeli library while the originals could go to the “Birzeit library”. An astute Palestinian woman behind me asked why he thought they should be transferred to Birzeit when these books came from Jerusalem, Haifa, Yaffa, Lod, and other Palestinian towns quite a distance from Birzeit. His response? “It doesn’t have to be only Birzeit. The books can be split between there and Nablus, for example.” He clearly didn’t understand what the woman was asking or the deeply Zionist underpinnings of his response.

In his irrelevant response that followed, Brunner recounted how he was not permitted to participate in the showing of his film in Ramallah because his participation would have constituted normalization. He was indignant that Palestinians would not want to engage in a cultural event with an Israeli in Ramallah. Again, he didn’t get it.

It is not for Mr Brunner to lecture or criticize us. It is not up to him to plot an ideal future for our books, one that is suitable to Zionist desires to relocate Palestinian identity to the confines of “Birzeit” or “Nablus”, “for example.” Nor is it for him to decide or even express an opinion on how Palestinians should conduct a non-violent anti-normalization struggle.

This is an important lesson for us. Just because an Israeli makes a film and admits that Israel murdered, dispossessed, robbed, disinherited, marginalized, and terrorized Palestinians, it doesn’t mean they really understand. It doesn’t mean that they have a right to our story. Most of all, it doesn’t give them a right to express their endless subtext of ineffectual Palestinian efforts. We know our weaknesses and we know our (official) leaders have fallen short of leadership. Given the magnitude of his societies crimes against the indigenous population and the fact that Israeli society keeps electing one war criminal after another to lead them, perhaps Brunner should focus his criticism at his own and just stick to that.

I recounted this story recently to a friend who is African American. He laughed, cut me off, and said, “Susie, you don’t need to explain it to me. I’m a black man. You know how many do-gooder white people have tried to lecture me on everything wrong in the Black community and what we need to do to fix it?”

The fact is that Mr Brunner’s film is wonderful and he’s being compensated for it, with whatever funds, fame or recognition the film brings. And while there is nothing wrong with an Israeli contributing to our narrative, it is not okay for him or her to try to frame that narrative or the discussion of our narrative. When an Israeli filmmaker cannot understand why an occupied, imprisoned, oppressed society might not want to normalize relationships with members of the occupier’s society, that filmmaker does not have the right to condescend and criticize. That is something that must be earned by Israelis, and there are certainly some who have. They are those who have truly joined Palestinian society in one way or another. People like Neta Golan and Amira Haas come to mind.

The fact is also this: For societies that have been stripped of everything tangible and intangible, so little remains. Some of us still have a little property left. Some still have the privilege to wake up and see the land our forefathers and foremothers roamed (and the price of that privilege is living under the hell of occupation). But the one thing we all still have is our narrative. Our collective story. Our societal truth that’s made up of millions of individual histories. We should all guard, protect, and propagate that. It’s ours. We are the natural descendants of every tribe that ruled or submitted in that land, every conqueror who passed through and raped our mothers, every battle, every harvest, every wedding. We didn’t step off European boats and proceed to kill, terrorize, or steal everything in sight. I’d like every liberal Zionist or Israeli leftist to remember that before he or she presumes to adopt a paternal tone that criticizes or tries to shape the Palestinian narrative or Palestinian struggle.

About Susan Abulhawa

Susan Abulhawa is the author of the international bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury, 2010) – – and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine –

View all posts by Susan Abulhawa → Posted in Israel/Palestine, Israeli Government, Nakba, Occupation


Mornings in Jenin, a novel by Susan Abulhawa, is a fictionalized account of a Palestinian family living through the reality of the forming of the state of Israel in 1948, the Occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the massacres in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982, and the massacre in Jenin in 2002. The story line covers four generations as they are displaced from their ancestral land, live as refugees in a camp in Jenin, fight against the Occupation, study abroad, and return to Palestine. Love and friendship connect the family members to their changing community. A devastating loss for one family brings hope to another and links the Palestinian and Jewish experiences of persecution and fight for survival.

This was a difficult book to read. It brought home the devastation of a family and a culture in ways that reading the historical facts cannot. At times I put it down and thought I could not pick it up again. Finally, I started over and the story line led me through. I wanted to know what happened to this family.

The stewardess on a flight from Cincinnati to Denver kept asking if I wanted something as I read the final chapters, tears running down my face. I cried for this fictional family. I cried for the Palestinian people. I cried for the Jews who died in the Holocaust and for those who survived with crippling physical and emotional wounds. I cried because I don’t understand how such inhumanity and injustice can go unchallenged in our world. I cried because I hurt for all these people. I cried because I have it so easy and I feel so helpless.     * * *

This tiny building in the Deheshi refugee camp (established in Bethlehem in 1949) is what entire Palestinian families first lived in when their tents were replaced by permanent structures (late 1950s). The one-room structure measures 10 square meters. Over 13,000 refugees still live in this camp which was built by the UN in 1949 to care for families from 45 villages.

This tiny building in the Deheshi refugee camp (established in Bethlehem in 1949) is what entire Palestinian families first lived in when their tents were replaced by permanent structures (late 1950s). The one-room structure measures 10 square meters. Over 13,000 refugees still live in this camp which was built by the UN in 1949 to care for families from 45 villages.

An informative introduction to the history of Israel/Palestine is a six-minute video put out by Jewish Voice for Peace:

To provide a little history, following the horrors of World War II, many Jews left Europe and immigrated to an area known as Palestine. At that time the British controlled the area under a mandate from the United Nations. Jews, Arabs, and Christians all lived in Palestine under British rule. As more and more Jews immigrated to the area, the Arab population felt threatened by the new immigrants. The British made contradictory promises to both the Arabs and the Jews. A partition was proposed by the UN, dividing the land into two states. The Palestinian Arabs rejected that proposal.

When the British left Palestine in 1948, armed Jewish militias took control of the land allocated to them under the UN proposal and formed the Jewish state of Israel. Many Palestinian Arabs were displaced at this time when their villages were destroyed and their lands confiscated for the new state of Israel. Some fled to nearby Arab countries. Others remained in Israel and became Arab citizens in the Jewish state. Some fled to areas such as Gaza and the West Bank where they lived in refugee camps overseen by the United Nations.

The UN Resolution on refugees posted prominently in the Deheshi refugee camp.

In 1967 during the six-day war, Israel annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem and occupied the West Bank and Gaza. This was illegal under international law. The Arabs and Christians living in the Occupied Territories have again been displaced for the building of illegal Jewish settlements. Palestinian movements are now restricted by walls, roadblocks, and checkpoints. (Note that in common usage, the word “Palestinian” has now become synonymous with “Arab” but also includes Christians who live in Palestine. It no longer includes Jews.)

Entire books have been written about this history and I am providing a bare summary. Some readers may think I have left out essential information. I like the video provided by Jewish Voice for Peace because it illustrates both the need for Jewish refugees from Europe to have a safe place to live and that the creation of Israel created a new group of refugees, the Palestinians.

By advocating for the rule of law in the Occupied Territories and for genuine democracy in Israel, it seems to some that I have taken sides. My intent is to educate and advocate for those who are oppressed. We have heard the Israeli narrative for 60 years. There is another narrative (actually, there are many narratives!) and I believe that it is time to hear from those who were displaced and who continue to live under discriminatory laws in Israel or under humiliating military occupation in the Occupied Territories.

Nearing the Denver International Airport on my return from Israel/Palestine, the woman in the seat behind me began to hum. As we were waiting to disembark, I turned to her and mentioned the tune. We chatted a bit and realized that we had been on the same flight from Tel Aviv. Naturally we talked about where we had been. She and her husband had spent two weeks at a resort near the Dead Sea. I mentioned Jerusalem, Hebron, and Bethlehem. She indicated that she would like to visit Hebron, but that Bethlehem was too dangerous. I replied that my experience was just the opposite: I felt perfectly safe in Bethlehem and that Hebron was more the dangerous place.

And then it hit me. In my sleepy, jet-lagged state I had forgotten that I was no longer with my Christian Peacemaker Team delegation. The couple behind me on that flight were Jews, returning from a vacation in Israel. From their perspective Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and therefore dangerous and even illegal for them to visit (although as US citizens they are allowed into Bethlehem). Hebron, with 1500 soldiers protecting the four Jewish settlements in the Old City, feels much safer to them.


For me,  Bethlehem was where our group stayed in the guesthouse of a Palestinian refugee camp and walked freely throughout the city. In contrast, every movement we made in Hebron was overseen by armed soldiers and we had to go through checkpoints every time we wanted to enter or leave the Old City where we were staying.

I returned home determined to speak out against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and to challenge my own government to stop funding military action against a civilian population. I quickly learned that what I considered a call for Israel and the US to uphold basic human rights was seen very differently by my Jewish friends. Several good friends were quick to point out that although they do not support the Israeli occupation, they found my views one-sided. After several email exchanges it seems that we do not understand each other. Our friendship is strained and may not survive.

I’m so sad about this. My life-long philosophy has been “It’s all about relationships.” And now it seems that I am faced with a choice between maintaining a dear friendship or speaking out against an unjust situation.

I’ve been thinking about perspective. My Jewish friends tell me that my one-sided advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians threatens the very existence of Israel. From what I experienced in Israel/Palestine, I believe that the Israelis are creating conditions of humiliation and hopelessness. By advocating for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Israel and the Occupied Territories, I hope that Israelis and Palestinians can both live in peace and dignity.

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Rev. Mitri Raheb, the senior pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, Palestine. He is in the U.S. on an education and fundraising tour. The many ministries of the church include a school, two-year college, wellness center, senior center, and guesthouse. These ministries have transformed the congregation and encourage the people it serves to “transform from spectators to actors.”


In his Advent message to the congregation of Bethany Lutheran Church in Denver, Mitri talked about Bethlehem then and now. The “little town” of Jesus’ birth had about 300-500 people. It was under Roman occupation. The only reason Jesus was born there is because his parents needed to register with the Roman authorities–a form of controlling the population. Even the Magi were interrogated about the purpose of their trip as they searched for the child. When Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt, they became refugees for the second time.

The modern “little town” of Bethlehem is again under occupation. The 28,000 people who live there are surrounded on three sides by a wall 25′ high. Visitors who admit they plan to travel to Bethlehem are again interrogated about the purpose of their trip–this time by Israeli authorities at the Ben Gurion airport. Many of the Palestinians who live there–one-third of whom are Christians–are refugees for the second time. Their first homes were lost in the 1948 formation of the State of Israel. Many have lost homes for the second time due to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Palestinians now live under the same circumstances as Jesus did in the first century.

The Christmas Story is real, says Mitri. The Gospel is that Jesus came into a real world of occupation and suffering. God came as a refugee. God became one of us. God comes into our real lives and transforms them. This is the Good News!

A portion of the wall in Bethlehem

A portion of the wall in Bethlehem

Clair Anastas‘ children came home to find a wall built around three sides of their home. The wall had gone up in one day, surprising and frightening the children as they arrived after school. Towering almost three stories high, the grey concrete panels almost completely encircle the house, leaving only one narrow road connecting this Palestinian family to Bethlehem.

On the other side of that separation fence is Rachel’s Tomb, a sacred place for Jews and Muslims. Yet no access is provided for Palestinians. Visitors from Israel walk a narrow corridor between the concrete panels to access the tomb. They never reach the city of Bethlehem.

Visitors to the Church of the Nativity are also restricted. Many arrive in large tourist buses and are dropped off in Manger Square. Guides advise them not to purchase souvenirs from the local venders and certainly not to wander away from the square into the nearby shopping area. Climbing back into their buses, the tourists are whisked away from the walled city to Israeli-run souvenir shops in Jerusalem.

I cannot help but wonder who is really imprisoned. The Palestinians cannot get out of Bethlehem unless they have a permit and then must return by 7pm each day. Israeli Jews are forbidden to enter Bethlehem and can only reach Rachel’s Tomb through an ugly corridor of concrete. Christian tourists see the city of Jesus’ birth through the windows of a bus.

An olive wood crèche that I purchased in Bethlehem symbolizes life in this occupied city. Like every other crèche, this one has Mary, Joseph, and the baby sheltering under a simple canopy. But preventing the Wise Men from seeing the Holy Family is a separation barrier, a wall.

As we set up our Christmas decorations and sing cherished holiday carols, I ask you to take a moment and pray for the little town of Bethlehem. May those who see the separation barrier as a form of security find ways around their fear. May those who are harassed and humiliated by the apartheid wall find ways around their anger.  May visitors find ways to meet the people who make Bethlehem their home.

The optimistic woodworker who crafted my crèche designed the wall to be removable. I pray that the concrete fence that imprisons both Israelis and Palestinians will someday fall and that all those who seek to visit the holy city of Bethlehem will find nothing blocking their journey.


Brenden comes through the checkpoint.

One of the five checkpoints. This one has a metal detector and armed soldiers.

Home of an especially virulent settler who harasses Hani's family. She also called the soldiers when our group came through and forced us to wait for permission to pass. This area is known as Tel Rumeida.

Home of an especially virulent settler who harasses Hani’s family. She also called the soldiers when our group came through and forced us to wait for permission to pass. This area is known as Tel Rumeida.

Hani explains that the Palestinian owner of a nearby home died of a heart attack because he couldn't get through the checkpoint.

Hani explains that the Palestinian owner of a nearby home died of a heart attack because he couldn’t get through the checkpoint.

Entrance to Hani's home. Grapes to left; olives to right.

Entrance to Hani’s home. Grapes to left; olives to right.

The grapes that Hani cannot harvest because settlers in the home throw rubbish and call the soldiers to prevent Hani from getting near the house.

The grapes that Hani cannot harvest because settlers in the home throw rubbish and call the soldiers to prevent Hani from getting near the house.

View from Hani's front yard. This is his land, but he cannot use it because the military has taken it over.
View from Hani’s front yard. This is his land, but he cannot use it because the military has taken it over.
Jeni and Hani's daughter.

Jeni and Hani’s daughter.

A view of the olive trees that Hani is prohibited from harvesting.

A view of the olive trees that Hani is prohibited from harvesting.

A treacherous route down the hill.

A treacherous route down the hill.

Imagine going through five checkpoints to get home each evening. One has a metal detector. The others are simply young soldiers with guns and phones. At each checkpoint you can be delayed until a phone call determines whether you can move on or not. Arriving home, you greet your children inside because it is unsafe for them to play out in the backyard. Your neighbors don’t like your family and want you to move.  They throw rocks and rubbish at your children and into your yard. Your fruit trees are close to the neighbors, so they call soldiers to prevent you from harvesting your own crops. You are prevented from driving your car up to your own home; everything must be hauled uphill on foot. Your one friendly neighbor no longer lives next door. Another family took advantage of your neighbor’s absence and moved into the house. The police will not evict the family but will, in fact, prevent you from getting too close to that house, even to pick your own grapes. Of course you could move. You have even been offered a lot of money for your house and your land. So why do you stay? Because this house, this land, these grapes and olives are your inheritance. Like Naboth, who refused to sell or trade his vineyard to King Ahab, you say to those who rule the land,”The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” (1 Kings 21:1-16)

What we can hardly imagine is Hani’s story. Our CPT delegation walked with him through the five checkpoints to his home on the top of Tel Rumeida in Hebron, West Bank, Palestine. We had just cleared one checkpoint and were halfway up the hill when the children of a settler family spotted us and called to their mother. She has a particularly vindictive personality and regularly calls the soldiers to delay Hani. That day was no different, even with eleven internationals accompanying him. We all waited until the soldier made a phone call and finally waived us through.

We walked past several settler cars parked in front of Hani’s gate. Hani cannot drive up to his home. Everything must be brought in on foot. Recently he had to drag his washing machine down the hill for repairs. Once inside his gate Hani pointed to a ripe olive overhanging the wall. “I can’t pick this,” he said. I didn’t understand–why couldn’t he pick an olive that practically hit him on the head as he walked in his own yard? “Their are cameras everywhere,” he explained. “The soldiers will come and arrest me for harvesting my olives.” He motioned to several trellises full of ripe grapes. “I cannot work the grapes because the settlers throw rubbish at me and call the soldiers.” Sure enough, the ground just under the windows of the house next door was full of trash.

Hani’s daughter showed me around the back side of the house. “We play in here,” she said, pointing to the enclosed back porch. Rounding a corner of the house she showed me a circle of chairs about ten feet away. “The settlers sit there and yell at us,” she said. Walking further behind the house we saw ancient olive trees loaded with ripe fruit. Hani was given two half-days to harvest his olives. This was a good year and the harvest typically takes four weeks. Hani pointed to a fenced off area and indicated that it contained an Israeli military post that is located on his land. The cameras and soldiers prevent him from even trying to harvest his trees.

Hani told us that his nearest neighbors are Jewish settlers who moved into the house when the Palestinian owner was away. The owner’s elderly parents were in the home, but settlers broke in and beat them. When the owner’s parents were taken away for medical care, settlers occupied the house. The owner has been to court several times–at great expense–to evict the illegal settlers. But each time he presents the eviction order, the family named in the order has moved and another family taken its place.

We took a different route back into the Old City of Hebron. Hani led us down a steep and broken stairway. I held on to rocks and branches and gingerly felt my way down the steps. I tried to imagine Hani’s wife traversing that stairway in her long dress carrying groceries or her youngest child. Somehow they manage.

Hani said that he has been offered $20 million for his property. He was encouraged move to another country and start a new life. The settlers told him that if he didn’t take the money and leave, they would make his life miserable and find ways to make him move anyway. But Hani is determined to stay on his ancestral land. He knows that his hilltop home is an ideal place for settlement expansion and that if he leaves, the few remaining Palestinian homes in that area will be confiscated. Besides, he asks, “Where would I go? This is my family’s land. This is my home.”