I’ve been back from Palestine for two weeks, and I’ve gotten a lot of questions and comments about my experiences there. I really appreciate people asking questions and wanting to learn about what reality looks like, but some of the questions conveyed a lot of persisting stereotypes, racism, Islamaphobia and misconceptions. For that reason, I’d like to answer those questions here. They are:
1. “What was it like being a woman in Palestine? Did you get a feel for the oppression of women in that society?”
2. “Did you face a lot of anti-Semitism or hostility as a Jew in Palestine?”
and, not to be outdone:
3. “What was it like being surrounded by Islamic extremism?”
On being a woman in Palestine:
-I was treated with respect- noticeably more respect than I experience as a woman in America. I didn’t get creeped on or leered at or hit on like I do in America on a daily basis. I was taken seriously as a professional in my career path, which is a huge struggle for me every day in America. There was one incident where a juice bar owner made some comment about my eyes and then got a little weird, but that was it. As I went all over the West Bank, traveling from Jerusalem to Ramallah to Hebron to Bil’in to Bethlehem- even at bus stations at night and walking down city streets- I never felt disrespected or oppressed.
-I made friends with and was treated like a real human being by Palestinians of all genders. People asked me about my job and what I studied in school; no one was surprised that I was educated or had a career. No one said anything to the tune of “you should get married and have kids and stay at home!”
-I met women who chose to stay home and raise their children, women who chose to work from home, and women who chose to have careers outside the home; all seemed happy with their decisions. I met men who celebrated and supported their wives’ and fiancées’ choices regarding hijab, employment, education, reproduction, etc. I’m sure it wasn’t all like that because there is misogynistic oppression in every society, but from an outsiders’ perspective it felt like a significant step up from how women are treated in America.
-People have asked me “Did you have to wear a hijab or cover your head in public?”
Sometimes I covered my head
and sometimes I didn’t,
and whether I covered my head or not was 100% my choice. That choice was based on what made me feel comfortable and what was most respectful each given situation. When I did choose to cover my head, it felt empowering, but I was treated with the exact same amount or respect regardless of whether or not my head was covered. Whether I was with strangers in the cities or with friends in the little village of Bil’in, I wasn’t treated differently based on whether or not my head was covered.
Likewise, many Palestinian women chose to wear hijab, but some chose not to. I can’t speak for Palestinian women, but the women I passed on the street every day wore their hijabs with a confidence and individuality that made it seem like they fully owned and cherished their decision. Those who chose not to wear hijabs also walked confidently.
-People didn’t expect me to fulfill certain gender roles. When I tried to help out around the house, the older boys (specifically 14-year-old Abdul Khaleik) would stop me and insist on doing the housework themselves. There seemed to be no expectation of subservience to men.
I do not want to claim that there is no misogyny in Palestine. There is misogyny everywhere to different extents and in different manifestations, and all of it is a problem. Palestinian society, just like every society I know of, has areas in which active work needs to be done in order for people of all genders to have equal rights and opportunities. I don’t know the nuances of how patriarchy intersects with being a people under occupation. But considering I hear Zionist propaganda claim every day that Palestinian society is incredibly misogynistic, people need to know what gender relations in Palestine actually look like.
I’d also like to point out- since Zionists keep trying to take the moral higher ground on gender issues- that I’ve experienced a significant amount of cultural misogyny in Israel. From getting catcalled to dealing with incredibly aggressive Israeli men who felt entitled to my body to being told things like “you’re practical; that’s a trait you don’t find in most women” to getting sexually assaulted when I went out in Tel Aviv (there, I said it)…I experienced none of this bullshit in Palestine. So Israel, please at least fix these toxic, pervasive and dangerous issues before claiming to be the “enlightened side.”
On being a Jew in Palestine
I experienced zero hostility toward my being Jewish; the fact that we were Jewish didn’t have any effect on how we were treated. Whether people knew we were Jewish or not, we were treated with the same amazing warmth, hospitality and generosity. If our Jewishness came up in conversation, sometimes people would make a point to say things like “I respect people of all religions and backgrounds as long as they believe in peace and justice” or “Jews and Muslims are like cousins! We come from the same roots!” or “I think the Jews should be able to live and practice their religion in peace here, and so should the Christians and so should we. We just want to live with equal rights.” The bottom line was “as long as you support human rights for everyone and you don’t support the ethnic cleansing of our people, you are absolutely welcome in my home for tea and falafel.”
From these conversations, I gathered that most Palestinians seem to understand a concept that I fight to explain to Americans every day: Judaism and Zionism are not the same thing. They are related, yes. But #notallZionists are Jews (just ask the conservative Evangelical Christian movement in America) and not all Jews are Zionists and contrary to hasbara propaganda, non-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism. Every Palestinian we talked to understood that already; they understood that we were ethnically, culturally and religiously Jewish but that we opposed the mass oppression and injustice that is Zionism. Our good friend Hamde, a prominent Palestinian photojournalist, constantly reiterates that Judaism is not the problem for the Palestinian people; Zionism is. The Occupation is.
“…but extremist Islam”
No. Nope. Fanaticism was not something I saw even once in the ways people practiced Islam in Palestine.
A quick note: Palestinians are predominantly Muslim, with a significant Christian population. The attitude towards Palestinian Christians seemed warm and accepting. When Palestinian Christians came to a protest during Christmastime, they were unified with the Muslims and everyone else there.
While the vast majority of Palestinians we met identified as Muslim, there was a broad spectrum of diversity in terms of religious practice. There were devout Muslims whose religious practice was close to their hearts and a big part of their daily lives, there were people who weren’t religious but identified as Muslims because they were born to Muslim families, and everything in between. Everyone seemed to practice their religion (or lack thereof) in whatever way/to whatever degree was meaningful to them, and let other people do the same. What we didn’t come across was anyone who would resemble an “Islamic extremist”: the devout Muslims we met all expressed respect for different religions and ways of life, and didn’t seem to use their religion as a tool to oppress others in any way. They wanted the Jews to be able to pray in their holy spaces like the Kotel and have that be respected, and they wanted to be able to pray in their holy spaces like al-Aqsa and have that be respected. The Orthodox Jews who forced Palestinian families out of their homes and violently attacked Palestinians and shouted “death to Arabs”, however, were extremists. (Though not all Orthodox Jews are Zionist extremists either. Some are openly non-Zionist.)
Since we were in a place that is holy for Christians, Jews, Muslims and Baha’i, religion was woven into the landscape and cultures all around us. But in Palestine, there seemed to be an intrinsic understanding that spirituality is personal and not to be homogenized or forced on people. That was a really nice contrast from the US, where I feel like Christianity has been shoved down my throat for my entire life.
I know that in my different posts, I keep bringing up the fact that Palestinians are so vastly different from the caricatures and stereotypes that are ascribed to them. This is crucial for everyone to know because our attitudes and even foreign policy procedures are highly influenced by these false perceptions. It shouldn’t take an American white person to get people to actually re-consider the racist myths they’ve internalized about Arab people and spaces. But the world needs to know about the whole-hearted warmth, kindness and generosity that is built into every facet of Palestinian culture. So please take my experience for whatever it’s worth and, if need be, re-consider everything that American media tells you about Palestine.