Monday, March 19, 2007

SYNDICATION: The Dispossessed often become ambiance, a lesson for Palestinians

Dispossession and the Palestinian-Israeli future

By Ray Hanania

(Syndication Columns can be purchased for republication. Contact Ray Hanania at for details.)

The dispossessed eventually become little more than ambience.

It’s a harsh reality, but it’s true. Once a conflict is resolved, anyway.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is sometimes compared to the conflict between the American pioneers and the Indians, now more respectfully called "Native Americans."

American hasn’t forgotten it’s Native American history, but that history has become more of a national "decoration" than a reality.

But they were originally Indian tribes long before they became politically correct owners and operators of America’s most profitable casinos, living on an American guilty conscience dole, and still, more than a century and a half later, as outsiders.

As a child, I remember always feeling sorry for the American Indians. My only contact was on popular television Westerns which always pitted the American soldiers against the barbaric, uncivilized and brutal "Indians."

It wasn’t because I was Palestinian. That Palestinian consciousness never materialized for me until years later because my dad tried to shelter me from the tragedy he knew would wreck lives in a country driven by stereotypes, racism and lack of education.

Yes, America is the most educated country in the world, populated by the most uneducated people in the world when it comes to "the world."

I think my feelings for American Indians was the result of how they were portrayed so negatively on television. And even if you favored the "cowboys" above the "Indians," every American child was enthralled with the history of the American Indian.

We all knew the fearsome Apache Geronimo and the battle of the Little Big Horn where the arrogant, golden-haired American Colonel George Armstrong Custer lost his life along with the lives of his entire regiment in one of the last great "massacres" of the American-Indian conflict.

In 1875, two of the largest Indian tribes, the Sioux and Cheyenne, left their reservations and Custer led the U.S. Cavalry to bring them back. Instead, he walked into a brilliant trap.

It’s worth noting that the American military and settlers committed heinous atrocities against the American Indians, too. They massacred men, women and children along with the American Indian Braves.

But there is an old saying in journalism, which is the cornerstone of communications. He who controls the pen controls the history. And for many years, and especially on television programs and Hollywood movies, the American Indians were always the bad guys.

This week I thought about all this as I was attending the Will Roger’s Writers Conference in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Oklahoma is a "plains state," the 46th of 50 American states. The name "Oklahoma" comes from the Choctaws, American Indians who once roamed there.

Ironically, many American cities carry Indian names, like Chicago, which comes from an Indian word for "wild onion" or "skunk." People have long forgotten from which tribe the name originates.

I was brought to Oklahoma City not as an expert on Palestinian native history, but as a journalist and as a Palestinian American comedian. My act has gotten huge publicity because I won’t follow the hateful path of some of my other Arab comedian colleagues by refusing to perform with "Israelis."

I’ll be back in Israel and the West Bank to perform, hopeful, in a few months.

But as we convened to discuss and debate hefty journalism issues as all journalists always do, I was struck by where I was at and the parallels (that are really misleading) between the history of Native Americans and the still incomplete history of the Palestinians.

About six blocks away from the conference hotel is the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. To most Americans, it is better known as the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which was destroyed in a terrorist attack on April 19, 1995.

At just after 9 AM that day, a terrorist pulled his truck up to the Federal Government building, walked away and then detonated the explosives inside tearing away half of the buildings front like a volcanic eruption and killing 168 people including many children in the nursery below.

Everyone thought the terrorists were "Arab." But by accident involving a traffic stop, the real terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, a Scottish American Christian Catholic, and a member of one of the many hidden and armed racist militias that exist in America, was caught. He was later executed.
The nation built a huge memorial on the site to remember the attack.

Meanwhile, throughout Oklahoma, massacres that took even more lives of Native Americans remain forgotten.

Nearby, in the city’s trendy "Bricktown Mall" and it’s popular river walk, down the street from the Bricktown Baseball stadium off Mickey Mantle Street. There, restaurants are filled with patrons celebrating sports and other personal events.

Yet, it is hard to forget that this area was once a center of American Indian culture. And today, you can barely see anything of real significance, other than Indian names on streets, some tourist stores that sell "Native American" jewelry and other souvenirs.

A ways from the city is the casino that is run by the region’s major Indian Tribes. No one says Native Americans are not American. They are fighting the way all dispossessed fight assimilation, but they are treated with respect equally under American law. They lost much.

The Native Americans exist here, but their existence if less reality and more ambience. Their history is little more than decoration. Landscaping. Paintings. Trinkets. And interesting memories that continue to fade of their facts.

It makes me think of the Palestinians, many of whom live in refugee camps that are much like reservations, too, I guess. Even those Palestinians like me who have assimilated into American culture, are in a sense, refugees of a sort too. We can’t move back to the homes and land that our father’s once owned.

We can argue about land ownership but I will just point to a recent study by the Israeli organization Peace Now that proves that at least 32.4 percent of settlement lands were stolen from Palestinian owners. Not bought. Not abandoned. Stolen.

Still, I am sitting here in a bizarre world in Oklahoma where dispossession has been completed under the shadow of terrorism. And I am wondering out loud. Does it really benefit the Palestinians to fight against compromise and two states or to insist that everything be returned to the way it was at the beginning of the 20th Century before most of Israel’s Jews immigrated to Palestine, mainly from Europe?

I don’t think the Palestinians are like the Native Americans at all. But I do think that if the Palestinians don’t seriously contemplate their situation soon, they will become a fading memory.

It will take the Israelis a lot longer than 100 years the American settlers took to erase the presence of the Native Americans and force them to surrender, but it will happen one day unless both sides reach a peace accord.

I don’t know how many Geronimos the Palestinians will have in the meantime. There might be more statues erected like the one that greets visitors to Jenin in the Northern West Bank, of Yahya Aiyash, the fearless Palestinian guerrilla who battled the Israelis as seriously as they battled him.

But is that really what we all want?

I don’t think so.

(Ray Hanania was named 2006/2007 Best Ethnic Columnist in America by the New America Media. He can be reached at

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