Singer Assaf the latest victim of war on Palestinian culture
Why do the Israeli authorities hate Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf? Avi Dichter, a Knesset member from the right-wing Likud party, announced this month that Assaf’s special permit to enter the occupied West Bank will be revoked.
Assaf, originally from Gaza, now lives with his family in the UAE. He achieved stardom in 2013, when he won the “Arab Idol” singing contest. His winning performance of the song “Raise Your Keffiyeh” prompted a rare moment of unity among all Palestinian communities. With the audience, judges and millions of Arabs dancing along, Assaf took center stage in Beirut, allowing Palestinian culture to once again prove its significance as a political tool that cannot be disregarded.
Since then, Assaf has sung about everything Palestinian: From the Nakba — the catastrophic loss of the Palestinian homeland — to the intifada and the pain of Gaza to every Palestinian cultural symbol there is.
He was born and raised in the Gaza Strip. There, he experienced Israel’s military occupation first-hand, as well as several deadly wars and, of course, the ongoing siege. Both his parents are refugees, his mother from Beit Daras and his father from Beir Al-Saba. The young man’s ability to overcome his family’s painful journey, yet remain committed to the cultural values of his society, is worthy of much reflection and praise.
Dichter’s announcement that Assaf would be barred from returning to his homeland is not as outrageous as it may appear. Israel’s war on Palestinian culture is as old as Israel itself.
Throughout the last seven decades, Israel has proved its ability to defeat Palestinians and even whole Arab armies militarily. Moreover, Tel Aviv, with the help of its Western benefactors, succeeded in dividing the Palestinians into rival groups, while breaking down Arab unity on Palestine.
The Palestinians were divided geographically and isolated into numerous little corners in the hope that each collective would eventually develop a different set of aspirations based on entirely different political priorities. As a result, Palestinians were variously besieged in Gaza, kept in segregated zones in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in economically marginalized communities within Israel, and in the “shatat” (diaspora).
Even diasporic Palestinians, some made refugees multiple times, subsisted in political environments they had very little control over. The Palestinians of Iraq, for example, found themselves on the run at the onset of the American invasion of that country in 2003, while the same thing happened in Lebanon earlier and in Syria later.
Israel’s incessant attempts at destroying Palestine also moved from the material sphere to the virtual one, pushing to censor Palestinian voices on social media and even removing mentions of Palestine from airline menus.
None of this was random, of course, as Israeli leaders understand that destroying the tangible, actual Palestine has to be accompanied by the destruction of the Palestinian idea — the set of cultural and political values that ensure its cohesiveness and continuity in the minds of all Palestinians, wherever they are.
Since culture is predicated on myriad forms of expression, Israel has dedicated much energy and many resources to eliminating Palestinian cultural expressions that allow Palestine to exist, in spite of the political divisions, Arab disunity and geographic fragmentation. There are numerous examples that amply demonstrate Israel’s official obsession with defeating Palestinian culture. As if the physical erasure of Palestine in 1948 was not enough, Israeli officials are constantly devising new ways of removing any symbols of Palestinian and Arab culture that remain.
In 2009, for example, Israel’s right-wing government began the process of changing the names of thousands of road signs from Arabic to Hebrew. And, in 2018, the openly racist “nation-state law” degraded the status of the Arabic language.
But these examples were hardly the start of the Israeli war on Palestinian culture. Israel’s founders were aware of the dangers that Palestinian culture posed in terms of its ability to unify the Palestinian people in the aftermath of the ethnic cleansing of nearly two-thirds of their population from their historic homeland.
An official letter sent to Israel’s first Interior Minister Yitzhak Gruenbaum instructed him to swap the names of newly depopulated Palestinian villages and regions with Hebrew alternatives. “The conventional names should be replaced by new ones… since, in an anticipation of renewing our days as of old and living the life of a healthy people that is rooted in the soil of our country, we must begin in the fundamental Hebraicization of our country’s map,” it said. Soon after, a government commission was assembled and given the task of renaming everything Palestinian Arab.
Another letter, written in August 1957 by an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, urged the Department of Antiquities to speed up the destruction of Palestinian homes emptied during the Nakba. “The ruins from the Arab villages and Arab neighborhoods, or the blocks of buildings that have stood empty since 1948, arouse harsh associations that cause considerable political damage,” he wrote. “They should be cleared away.”
Israel has dedicated much energy and many resources to eliminating Palestinian cultural expressions.
For Israel, erasing Palestine and writing the Palestinian people out of the history of their homeland has always been a strategic endeavor. Fast forward to today and the official Israeli machine remains dedicated to the same colonial mission. The agreement signed in 2016 between the Israeli government and Facebook to end Palestinian “incitement” online was part of that same mission: Silencing the voice of the Palestinian people.
Palestinian culture has served the Palestinian people’s struggle very well. Despite Israeli occupation and apartheid, it has given them a sense of continuity and cohesion, attaching them to a collective sense of identity.
Israel’s announcement that it will bar a Palestinian singer from returning, thus performing to Palestinians living under occupation, is, from an Israeli viewpoint, not outrageous at all. It is another attempt at disrupting the natural flow of Palestinian culture, which, despite the loss of Palestine itself, is as strong and real as it has always been.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press, Atlanta). Twitter: @RamzyBaroud