SPIEGEL Interview with Lila Abu-Lughod 'Any Solution Will Have to Involve More Creative Thinking'

While Israelis celebrate the 60th anniversary of their state's founding, Palestinians around the world are mourning the "Nakba" -- or "catastrophe" -- that drove so many into exile. Scholar Lila Abu-Lughod has taken a close look at the way Palestinians see the past and present.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: This week Palestinians all over the world mark the sixtieth anniversary of what they have come to call the "Nakba," or catastrophe -- the expulsion from their homes in 1948 in the wake of the founding of the State of Israel. You have studied the phenomenon as an anthropologist, but you yourself are the daughter of a Palestinian. What does this day mean to you?

Lila Abu-Lughod: Only my father was Palestinian, but for both my parents the political injustice of the situation was clear. Every child of a Palestinian refugee feels the burden of the events of 1948, not just through what a parent or grandparent might tell her or through sensing their hollow feeling of exile, but because the results are with us today in the continuing violence. Those who live in the US are faced daily with a kind of symbolic violence -- misconceptions and untruths conveyed by the media about Israel. I don't see the anniversary as a time of mourning but as an occasion for trying to get the world to listen to what really happened and to think about how this should shape our vision of a solution.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Nakba is a national trauma for the Palestinians, hundreds of thousands had to leave their homes and villages behind. But of course the number of those who actually lived through it decreases every year. Has this changed the meaning of commemorating the Nakba?

Abu-Lughod: This is a wonderful question. Dr. Rosemary Sayigh, who has been interviewing Palestinians about their experiences for decades, describes her work as a race against time. But Diana Allan, an anthropologist from Harvard who has been videotaping old men and women in the refugee camps all over Lebanon to create a Nakba Archive, would be the first to insist that though it is important to get these stories, it should not distract us from the contemporary problems Palestinians face, in Lebanon and elsewhere. I have been following with interest, though, the way this particular Nakba commemoration has galvanized people and spurred storytelling: a good example is the series of "untold stories" on the Web site of the Institute for Middle East Understanding.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Nakba and the founding of the State of Israel can't be separated from one another. What does this mean for relations between Israelis and Palestinians today?

Abu-Lughod: Palestinians and Israelis are tightly entangled. Any resolution must involve a recognition of the fact that Israel was founded on the expulsion of Palestinians. Then we can think and talk together about restitution, redress, compensation, or whatever it takes for a more just way forward. In Israel and Palestine we have an amazing opportunity -- to think about changing history by considering a democratic state with a living future for everyone.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your book you point out that the children of those Palestinians who lived through the Nakba and the children of the Jews who were persecuted in Europe and made it to Israel both have to deal with the traumatic experiences of their parents.

Abu-Lughod: My colleague Ahmad Sa'di, who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and has both studied the history and been subjected to the painful reality of living in a state based on race, writes in our book, "Nakba," about the terrible irony of a people who had suffered so much becoming the perpetrators of violence.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In some circles it is almost considered an anti-Semitic statement to even compare the suffering of the Jews of Europe and the Palestinians. No one has the moral right to tell Jews they should have "learned" something from the Holocaust.

Abu-Lughod: I did not and would not make comparisons. Nor would I say that victims of the Holocaust have something to “learn.” It is disturbing that others misunderstand and misrepresent what Palestinians are saying, or deny them a moral right to talk about what happened to them. As for false accusations of anti-Semitism -- these trivialize an important issue because they are now routinely used to silence any discussion of Palestinian suffering and any open debate about what the Israeli government is doing.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many Palestinians see the "right of return" as non-negotiable. Israel, on the other hand, maintains that it would be Israel's undoing -- and the best the Palestinians can hope for is permission for a token number of Palestinians to return. Do you think that this symbolic solution can be helpful in healing the wounds?

Abu-Lughod: I don’t think it is a matter of “healing the wounds” but of finding -- through talk and negotiation, through recognition and concessions -- a just solution. In 1948, UN General Assembly Resolution 194 guaranteed the refugees’ right to return or to compensation "under principles of international law or in equity." A good beginning would be to abide by the many UN Resolutions that have been passed in the last 60 years, not to mention asking Israel to abide now by the fourth Geneva Convention governing the treatment of civilians in occupied territory.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You seem to prefer the so-called "one state solution."

Abu-Lughod: It's not a simple choice between one or two states. The original UN Partition Plan in 1947 that called for two states also called for much more equal ways of sharing the land of Palestine, for forms of economic union and for Jerusalem to have international status. People now look at the extent of Israeli control of Palestinian territory and resources, including water, and realize that any solution will have to involve more creative thinking.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It's often said that that after 1948 and after 1967 the Arab states did all they could to remind the world that the Palestinians were refugees, rather than trying to integrate them.

Abu-Lughod: It is both a right under international law and a normal thing in the aftermath of a conflict for civilian refugees to be allowed to return home. What was so different in this case was that the state of Palestine that existed (under British occupation) in 1948 had been eliminated and the existence of a whole people was being denied. Palestine had disappeared.

In my essay about my father in "Nakba" I tell the story of how excited he was to hear that he and his best friend had passed their national high school exams, which they took in March 1948 while the fighting was going on. But then it dawned on him that since Jaffa had fallen to the Zionists, it no longer meant anything. They were refugees with no future. And did you know that Israel doesn’t allow anyone who was driven out in 1948 to be buried in his hometown? Even in death the Israelis want to keep the refugees out. Being able to fulfill my father’s last wish, to be buried in Jaffa next to his father’s grave, was unique.

The enormity and uniqueness of the attempted dispossession and elimination of a people in 1948, and again in 1967, is what persuaded the international community and the Arab states to focus on the refugees’ return and the reconstitution of some sort of Palestinian state. Arguments about the mistreatment of refugees in Arab states are one of the many ways that Israel tries to distract attention from these basic facts.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But you can't deny that they've been treated badly ...

Abu-Lughod: Palestinian scholars and activists have been at the forefront of those documenting the way some of the Arab states have denied Palestinian refugees rights and opportunities, just as they deny them, incidentally, to many of their own populations. What I object to is how these facts are used to avoid talking about why these people were made refugees in the first place.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Hardly anyone believes that Palestinian refugees will ever really return to their homeland. But if you ask them, most children in Palestinian refugee camps around the world will say so. Is it good to keep this belief alive?

Abu Lughod: Claiming the right is important even if the practical obstacles may seem insurmountable for many, and even if many won't want to excercise the right and return to any part of their homeland.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Nakba also divided the Palestinians into those who are now citizens of Israel, those who live under occupation and those who live as part of the diaspora. What ties them together and what separates them?

Abu Lughod: Borders, prisons, soldiers and checkpoints divide them; poets, kinship, history and dreams tie them together.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When you visit the Palestinian territories or Israel, as someone who was born in the diaspora, do you feel at home?

Abu-Lughod: If feeling at home means feeling safe, stable, and at ease, I don't think anyone can feel at home in Israel/Palestine. My visits to Palestine have all been very intense emotionally. The good part was experiencing the extraordinary generosity and spirit of the Palestinian community. They live under truly unbelievable conditions with great humanity.

But the rest is impossible to describe: the constant fear that the ubiquitous presence of soldiers and guns, checkpoints, and arbitrary violence creates; the deep gouges in green hillsides made for Israeli settlements with garish red tile roofs; the miles and miles of barren highways criss-crossing the rocky landscape and claiming it arrogantly with modern green signs in Hebrew and English; the non-native evergreen forests planted to hide razed Palestinian villages. My father saw beyond, between and behind them to the familiar landscapes of his youth. But I could only see the present.