Nada Sefian and Leila Mouammar | Edited by Arthur Milner
NADA SEFIAN was born in Saida, Lebanon, and also lived in Saudi Arabia and France before coming to Canada in 1986. Her parents lived in Majdal Askalan (now Ashkelon), until her father was expelled by the Israel Defence Forces after the 1948 war. She now lives in Montreal, where she works full time on various Palestinian causes, with organizations such as Montreal Dialogue, Women in Black, Salaam-Shalom and Parole Arabe.
LEILA MOUAMMAR was born in Toronto. Her father’s family left Haifa, Palestine, in the runup to the 1948 war. Her mother’s family immigrated from Nazareth, Israel, to Canada in 1967. She has lived, studied and worked in Beirut, New York and, briefly, Nazareth. She now lives in Montreal where she is active in community organizing on issues of social justice.
Nada and Leila were interviewed in Montreal on June 18, 2004. What follow are excerpts from that interview, recorded and edited by Arthur Milner.
NADA SEFIAN: I was attracted by the idea of Jews and Palestinians working together. Two years ago we started a group, Shalom/Salaam, a dialogue group between Palestinian and Jewish Canadian or Israeli people. For me it is a success story. One year ago we started another, more courageous project, a dialogue with Jewish people who are not on the left – just people who cannot take any more what is going on in Israel and Palestine, and who want to meet their Palestinian or Arab Muslim counterparts. I am also trying to start a group for Palestinian and Jewish young people. Of course we are having difficulty so far.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: I was involved in dialogue groups for two years. I also went to synagogues and did talks and presentations to Jewish youths. At McGill, in 1995, a Jewish friend and I were taking a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict and we started a youth dialogue group. Groups of about 15 people met in each other’s homes. There was a certain level of respect – if you’re in someone’s home you want to be a good guest. We were learning a lot, though I would say many of the Palestinians felt they weren’t learning that much, because we’d had a lot of exposure to the Jewish narrative in Western media. We felt that we understood the fears and insecurity. But I know a lot of the Jewish students found it incredibly eye-opening, because they wouldn’t have been exposed to the Palestinian narrative.
Our group fell apart largely because the more conservative Jewish students felt that the group was becoming a propaganda outlet for Palestinians, because many Jews in the group were changing their ideological position. Many of the Palestinians were already moderate because they’re the ones who are willing to sit down with Jews. I think it’s difficult for a Palestinian to accept the idea of dialogue with a Zionist. Not a Jew who is not Zionist – I have tons of anti-Zionist friends or neutral Jewish friends. But it’s difficult to dialogue with someone whose ideology dismisses your equality. I’m nervous about dialogue groups because I think of what Nelson Mandela said about how you don’t negotiate your equality. You either recognize people as equal or you don’t.
NADA SEFIAN: We have great difficulty recruiting Arab people to participate in the dialogue groups, because of the reasons Leila gave. There was one Jewish woman, who came to a talk we held, and you could see how scared she was. It was her first encounter with a Palestinian, her first time in a Palestinian home. I met her a few times and I put her on our events list and I sent her articles, especially articles by Israeli journalists. This woman emailed me that I wasn’t as tolerant as I pretended because I sent articles that condemned Israel, and she said that she felt threatened by anti-Semitism in the whole world, and especially by the burning of the school library in Montreal, and she went on and on about not knowing who I was and what was my agenda. I was very upset and I answered each paragraph, each sentence. To my astonishment, she sent me an email and it was so lovely that I kept it. She was completely transformed in her ideas. And this is the reaction that you get from Jewish people. The only thing we ask is respect. We come to dialogue, not to debate. We want to understand each other, the humanity on the other side. We are asked the most difficult questions and we try to answer them honestly.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: I’m not against dialogue groups. My hesitation is that you start with a kind of equal culpability between the two parties for what is called the cycle of violence. In that framework there is no analysis of power differentials, no analysis of the apartheid policies that make distinctions between Jews and non-Jews in Israel. The dialogue group is a project for beginners. It needs to be run by people who are well versed in the conflict and have the patience to answer the same questions every day. A lot of Palestinians don’t have the patience to do that right now.
I can’t go visit my country, my parents’ country, even though I have Canadian citizenship, because border controls for people of Palestinian ancestry are becoming stricter. But I have only a marginal experience of oppression. For someone who has lived under occupation or in a refugee camp, with an experience of trauma and violence, and whose only experience of Jews is one of domination, I don’t see how they could sit down and dialogue, if the idea was simply to share feelings and hope that maybe Jews will come to see our humanity.
The kids I met in Jenin are very aggressive, very angry. Little kids ran up to me, holding bullets in their hands, and said, “The Jews did this.” That never used to happen. They didn’t mean all Jews, but the more there is trauma, the more there is home demolition – these are massacres, whether the number killed is 50 or 250 doesn’t really matter. When you read the descriptions of what happened at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, about bulldozing homes and going house to house killing people – it might not have been on the same scale, but that’s what was happening in Jenin. That’s what we’re dealing with in Palestine – an ongoing massacre, day by day, people being killed, humiliated, lives and families destroyed. Victims of oppression should not have to go to their victimizer and explain to them why they should be seen as human. It is an additional trauma. It needs to be done by someone like me or Nada who hasn’t had a really direct experience with that trauma, or who is able to put it aside for a while.
NADA SEFIAN: It might surprise Leila that I did live through traumas. In 1982, I was living in Saudi Arabia but, a few days before the Israeli invasion, I was in Lebanon. A bus was bombed, even though the Israelis could see that that it was a UN bus, and many people were killed. My father-in-law was wounded, so we had to stay in Lebanon, and meanwhile the invasion started. We couldn’t leave. We were prisoners in West Beirut. No water, no electricity. I was pregnant, with two children; we were bombarded day and night. But even at that time I was able to distinguish between Israel and an Israeli person, what is Jewish, what is politics. I have never and I do not condemn the whole Jewish people for what the state of Israel is doing. The same applies to Germans. You cannot blame all the Germans for what Hitler did. So that is what makes me open to these dialogue groups.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: I agree, but Germans are held culpable for Hitler. The German people voted for him. There was very little resistance. But people afterwards said, “How could the German people allow this to happen?”
NADA SEFIAN: Now people are asking the same question about Israel.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: And it needs to be asked. You have to say to someone who is Jewish that when a state is claiming to speak in your name, that Jews have to stand up and say, “That state doesn’t speak for me.” I know that there are many Jews who work very hard in different groups to make it clear that Israel does not represent them. But they need to be more vocal, because this is a state that claims to speak for an entire religious grouping.
NADA SEFIAN: There is no excuse for anyone not to know the truth. There are websites and books, but you have a state which has been indoctrinating people for more than 50 years and, unfortunately, the Jewish people who are very intelligent and very advanced, even on human rights, when it comes to Israel, there is a blockage.
Arab and Muslim activism
NADA SEFIAN: Muslim organizations have their own agenda – political Islam. Palestine is part of it, but it’s not the main issue. We have Muslim groups with their agendas, more national groups with their own agendas. We are very divided, not like the Jewish community with the Canadian Jewish Congress. Unfortunately, we don’t have the equivalent in the Arab community.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: My parents are Christian – Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, all mixed up together. But they’re not religious. I would say we feel culturally very close to Islamic communities. There are lots of cultural similarities that we share. And some of the principles of Islam, like standing up against social injustice, are inspiring and, I believe, fundamental to the Muslim community and Muslim practice. This is why you see a lot of activism coming out in a religious form. In our organizing, I don’t find that I am discriminated against as a Christian. I’m always given an active and prominent role.
NADA SEFIAN: I come from a Muslim family, but I’ve been secular since I was born. I respect and I am proud of the Muslim tradition. I think Islam was the first monotheistic religion to respect the presence of other religions. Of course, it was not the equality of the 21st century, but Christians and Jews were important in building Muslim civilization, and they were respected. So you can be religious, but you have to be tolerant. If I’m a Muslim activist and wearing the veil, it’s not a problem, but I have to be open and tolerant. In demonstrations, we don’t want religious Muslims to say Jerusalem is Muslim, which can happen. Jerusalem is Christian, Muslim and Jewish. These are the differences that could arise between secular Palestinian activism and Muslim activism.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: It is a process of negotiation and building coalitions. Every group has its own reasons for being there.
NADA SEFIAN: I went once to a demonstration organized by Women in Black, and we met in the lobby of Concordia, and there were representatives of Muslim organizations, many of them veiled women. Here we had some very left-wing, radical, secular Canadians with conservative, veiled, Muslim women, working side by side.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: The Muslim Council of Montreal is very supportive of many initiatives in the Palestinian community, on Palestine, on the Palestinian refugees in Montreal, on student activists who are being suspended or expelled from the university for being vocal.
NADA SEFIAN: In dialogue groups too. There is a Muslim-Jewish women’s group that has been going from synagogue to mosque, mosque to synagogue. There is also a Jewish woman who works with Jewish kids from Orthodox schools and kids from Muslim schools.
Right of return
NADA SEFIAN: Jewish people keep asking me, “What about the right of return?” My answer is always this: “You just said it – it’s a right. Why should the Palestinians renounce a right?” Now, you can negotiate the numbers – that’s completely different. We can negotiate the demographic threat to Israel. But you do not negotiate your rights.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: The right of return is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It means that every individual who leaves their home in time of war has the right to return. In every conflict we have seen in history, there has been some attempt to accommodate the right of return. The exception has been the Palestinian situation. Palestinians are the largest, longest-standing refugee population in the world. Most people don’t know that because the agency responsible for refugees is the UNHCR , but Palestinians fall under UNRWA , a special agency for Palestinians. When the UNHCR holds World Refugee Day, Palestinians are never mentioned.
Palestinian refugee rights have fallen by the wayside. In almost every poll, Palestinians cherish the right of return and say that no leader can negotiate that right away, because it is an individual right. When it comes to final status negotiations, in my opinion and in the opinion of most Palestinians, the right of the individual to return must be preserved. However, that does not mean that every single Palestinian refugee is going to return. But they do want some recognition of the fact that they do have that right, and they will want some kind of compensation or recognition that that right could be exercised.
NADA SEFIAN: How is it that Israel could pronounce itself as a state, not for Israelis but for the Jewish people? This is racism that nobody talks about. The state of Israel was created on the expulsion of Palestinian people, massacres of Palestinian people. In 1948, my father refused to leave. He was a pacifist and he didn’t believe that the Israelis would harm him. I knew he was expelled by the Israeli army, but there were many things he never told me. Afterwards, I learned what had happened in his town, and every single day I think, Was he beaten? Was he tortured? He died with his secret. My whole life, my whole society, my existence was transformed, deformed by this injustice that was done. So how can the state of Israel compensate me for my suffering?
LEILA MOUAMMAR: I was in Nazareth for three months, but I can never go back. I can only begin to understand what it’s like to be a refugee and never be able to see the land that your parents came from.
NADA SEFIAN: The Palestinian negotiators never insisted on an open right of return, and I think any Palestinian would feel relieved if Israel would say that we have even a limited right of return. But I think Israel owes us a right of return, because of the suffering we went through, for all the accumulated humiliations.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: For some people, the right of return is the one thing that they are hanging onto. They were born refugees, their grandparents are refugees, and the only hope they have is to have the right of return so eventually maybe their grandchildren will have a decent life. They’re the ones who should negotiate what they want.
Suicide bombings and the killing of civilians
LEILA MOUAMMAR: Suicide bombings are unhelpful and wrong. That’s my position. However, I do not condemn suicide bombings publicly, as a matter of course, because I feel that there needs to be an analysis of what is causing people to take their lives and take the lives of others. It’s not a simple choice to take your life. It’s not a first option in the resistance to injustice. It comes after frustration, poverty, desperation, in a climate in which power comes from the barrel of a gun. There is no law in the territories. And when there is no legal recourse for the injustices you face, when you’ve seen your family members murdered or humiliated, it seems plausible that after some time you would see no escape except to kill yourself and in the process want to kill others.
Now there are people who argue that killing Israeli civilians is not wrong, because Israeli civilians serve in the military. I disagree. When they’re not on duty in the military they’re still civilians, and the killing of civilians is wrong. But it’s not as widespread as one would think. These are a few individuals who reach a breaking point, and there is a support structure to help them get bombs and do their work. But they’re not paid or rewarded. There is a program for martyrs. A martyr can be someone who carried out a suicide bombing or it could be an innocent victim of an Israeli bullet. All are viewed as contributing to the resistance.
NADA SEFIAN: I have no problem condemning suicide bombings, because it’s very wrong, period. But the problem is when people ask, “Is there compensation?” or “Are there rewards?” These people are losing the most dear thing – life. It’s not because they want to gain money. It could be that they have lost all hope, but it could also be to give life. Because many of these suicide bombers think they are serving the Palestinian cause, and maybe their own children. You have to understand the psychology of these people. When a woman gives her life and leaves behind her living children, I think she wants to make a better life for her children by advancing the Palestinian cause.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: I view suicide bombing as a form of collective punishment. I condemn collective punishment by the Israeli army and I condemn collective punishment by suicide bombers against Israeli civilians. But this has come out of decades of occupation and humiliation, and must be viewed as a last resort. And if there were more work in the territories, if there were more freedom of movement, if there were more rights – these are people who feel that they have nothing to lose, and that the best contribution they can make to the struggle is to kill themselves.
NADA SEFIAN: Palestinians in the occupied territories were passive until 1987. It was only with the first intifada that that changed. And the first intifada was not violent at all. There was zero killing of Israeli soldiers. It was about stones and it was women’s civil non-obedience. But the Palestinians are always stereotyped. Passive resistance is violence when it comes to the Palestinian people. Throwing stones is violence, attacking an occupier in our own land is violence. Palestinians say, “No matter what we do, we are considered to be terrorists.” Where is the fairness of the media? Look at Rafah. Israel enters Rafah, kills civilian Palestinians in the name of security. So put yourself in their shoes.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: Israel has nuclear weapons and hasn’t signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and nobody cares. There is a double standard, which is feeding anti-Americanism in the Arab world.
The future of Palestine
LEILA MOUAMMAR: If most Israelis will never accept a full right of return, and most Palestinians won’t ever accept giving up the right of return, it seems we’re at an impasse. So you have to look at fundamental human rights, and do the best to uphold those rights. Many Israelis believe that a Jewish state is a right, but there is nothing in international law that says you have a right to create an ethnically or religiously exclusive state. But there is an international law that says you have the right to freedom of movement, the right of return, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion. Those are inalienable human rights and any solution to the conflict must be built on those principles. It cannot be built by simply trying to find a middle position, because that’s not going to lead to a lasting peace. If there is no right of return, Palestinians will always feel aggrieved and will always resist a system that they feel is fundamentally unfair.
Now if we say we can’t have a Jewish state any more, but we are going to have in its place a multinational, multiethnic, multireligious state – if we could set that up, it would be, I think, inspiring to the rest of the world. To say that these ethnic and religious and sectarian divisions have been transcended so that everyone can enjoy their full capacity as equal human beings on this planet.
NADA SEFIAN: Yesterday I spoke with a Palestinian woman who comes from Jerusalem. She said, “We don’t want to live in this conflict. We know that what has happened, but we cannot undo history.” Many, many Palestinians and Arabs accept a state of Israel that would live in peace, but not an army state that keeps bombing and killing.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: It is upsetting that the history of persecution and pogroms and deep humiliations in Europe has resulted in ghettoization again. The state of Israel is a ghetto state for Jews. It’s a separating out from people, rather than working toward a societal context where you have equal rights, whatever your religion or ethnicity. I think that’s the fatal flaw in Zionism, because you cannot have a Jewish state when one and half million of your citizens are not Jewish. It necessarily implies second-class status for those people and that means that you are setting yourself up for internal problems. Even if the West Bank and Gaza became a separate country and a viable state – which I don’t think is possible – you will still have one and half million non-Jewish citizens inside Israel who are being discriminated against because they are not Jewish. The societal fabric within Israel cannot be sustained unless these massive inequalities are addressed. I am completely against the two-state solution, because I don’t think that will solve the problem. The only solution in my opinion is a one state-solution.
NADA SEFIAN: There are even Jewish young people who espouse the same thing, but I’m talking about the majority of people in the Arab world. There is a lot of hatred – justified hatred – on both sides. It is very difficult to tell the Palestinians or Israelis, “You are going to have one state and live happily every after.” Things have to pass through phases. The two-state phase should be implemented to reach a one-state solution with people trusting each other and wanting to live together.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: When I look at the land right now, I see one state. There are one and a half million Palestinians in Israel, spread out in Jewish communities and in their own communities. In the West Bank and Gaza, there are millions of Palestinians and a few hundred thousand Jews, living side by side. It’s one state, but it’s an apartheid state.
NADA SEFIAN: Exactly.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: And we want one state that is not an apartheid state. Do we go to two states first? Or do we just go to one state without the apartheid?
NADA SEFIAN: The Israeli government’s idea of the two-state solution is actually one state with Israel grabbing Palestinian land and leaving Palestinians in ghettos. Look at Gaza. Gaza is a big prison. Nobody can go in, nobody can go out. So we can actually summarize the conflict, from the very beginning until now, in one brief sentence: Palestinians are not looked upon as equals to Jews or Israelis. Unless this equality is implemented, there is no peace solution. We can talk about the Road Map and the Geneva Accord, but as long we are not the equal of the Israeli and the Jewish person, as long as we are seen as people who collect the garbage, who do the dirty work of the Israelis, there will not be a solution. That’s why I emphasize these dialogue groups. You need to see the astonishment on the Jewish faces when they look at us. All of a sudden we are human beings. It is unbelievable. We are living next to each other in the 21st century, and still these people think of us as subhuman. And it’s only in these dialogue groups that these myths start to unravel.
LEILA MOUAMMAR: That’s why I say it takes an enormous amount of patience, which I respect. Because it’s hard to sit in front of people who are questioning your humanity, who you know are looking at you as if you’re not fully human. Not only are you suffering as a result of this viewpoint that dehumanizes you, but then you have to take that person’s hand and walk them toward a point where they can recognize your humanity.
NADA SEFIAN: I can understand Leila’s frustration. But she is much younger than I am, and usually patience come with age. I believe in what we are doing. Sometimes my husband teases me, “If Sharon came here, you would talk with him.” I can’t refuse any Jewish person. Right-wing, left-wing, it does not matter. My cause is a just cause and I have nothing to hide.