I interviewed Jason Christopher Damouni, a young Palestinian who lives in Australia. One may agree or not with what Damouni says, but one should understand it in order to understand the moderate Palestinian point of view.
Jason, could you tell me about yourself?
I am the founder and Managing Director of a renewable energy business called Trivium Energy that provides solar energy systems here in Western Australia. I’m not particularly religious, but I come from a Palestinian Catholic Melkite family, and I regularly attend church and do my bit for our community. I’m in my early 30s.
What does being a Palestinian mean to you?
Being a Palestinian means being a Levantine Arabic speaker who belongs in one of three categories:
- Lived or is descendant of people who lived in the British Mandate of Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and was displaced during the war.
- Continued to remain on the land that became the State of Israel in 1948 and has Israeli citizenship.
- Lives in the territories of Gaza, East Jerusalem, or the West Bank which Israel took control of in 1967.
I’m in category one. The Damouni family comes from a little Christian Arab village between Nazareth and Haifa called Al-Damoun. My grandfather Elias was displaced in 1948 and was never able to return. Identifying as a Palestinian Christian to me is about providing continuity to this rich heritage.
How does it make you feel when you hear some people say that the Palestinian people doesn’t really exist?
Obviously, nobody denies our physical existence. What they’re denying is our Palestinian identity, but we have every reason to use a distinct label to refer to ourselves, because it’s not the Levantine Arabs in Beirut or Tripoli, nor the ones in Damascus or Aleppo, nor the ones in Amman and Petra who had to face an influx of refugees from Lithuania and Poland. It’s the Levantine Arabs in Jerusalem and Haifa who did. We were treated as if we were invisible by those who arrived in large numbers. They pretty much ignored our existence and built a whole country over us that gives preference to the foreign-born population. It’s the same that happened in colonial nations like the USA and Australia, but as soon as one draws that comparison, we’re accused of antisemitism, even though when you look from the point of view of the native Levantine Arab in Haifa, the influx of people from Europe very much felt like a colonial movement. The label of Palestinian embodies our struggle that is still ongoing. I ask those who deny us this label, what alternative are they proposing? It’s not as if they’re offering us Israeli citizenship. This leaves us in a limbo. We can’t call ourselves Israeli because we’re not Jewish and therefore don’t qualify for Aliyah, and we can’t call ourselves Palestinian because apparently, we’re just generic Arabs. Do people think this through? An Arab can mean 22 different things.
When you meet Jewish people, do you develop friendships with them more easily or less easily than with average Australians?
More easily because we’re fellow Semitic people with very similar cultures. We’re warm, hospitable, generous, compassionate, and family-oriented. We stay close to our community and look after our friends. We’re fiercely loyal and can be quite blunt in expressing our opinions. The similarities by far outweigh the differences, but it is the sad reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that creates awkwardness between our two people despite all those similarities. Think about it, my Jewish Australian friends who come from Lithuanian-South African ancestry, who don’t speak a word of Hebrew, and who don’t even believe in the biblical God of Moses, by virtue of being born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family are entitled to make Aliyah and could potentially start living in that village that bears my surname, Al-Damoun. I, on the other hand, the grandson of Elias Damouni who was displaced from that village a single generation ago, cannot make Aliyah because I’m not Jewish. How can you expect me or any other diaspora Palestinians to simply get over this and move on? Is that a reasonable expectation?
When you meet Jewish people, do you talk about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and if so, how do you feel about those discussions?
Of course, it’s natural that those conversations come up, and when they do, I usually listen to their views to see how well they understand our side of the story, but it’s rare that I meet a Zionist who does. They talk about their own history, but Palestinians are either invisible to them or if we exist, we don’t deserve national rights. They lament that we want to take the only state that Jewish people have. We’re apparently just “Arabs” with 22 other countries to go to. That mindset isn’t limited to right-wing Zionists. I’ve spoken with plenty of left-wing Zionists who think that they’re different but when it comes to how they conceptualize who we are as a people and what we had to go through due to the implementation of the Zionist project, there is virtually no difference. As long as the majority of Zionists continue to act as if their side has done absolutely nothing wrong, I am not sure that we can say that we have a partner in peace. However, I feel that having these discussions is important so that both peoples can form a more nuanced understanding of each other and create the environment that will lead to a partnership in peace.
If there is one day an independent Palestinian state, do you see yourself moving there?
Most Jews lived outside the land (Israel/Palestine) through the past 2,000 years, and most Jews continue to live outside the land despite the fact that a Jewish state has existed for the past 73 years. If a Palestinian state is created, it doesn’t mean that I must abandon the life that I have in Australia and move to that state. However, I can and will continue to advocate for the existence of a Palestinian state so that the millions of stateless Palestinians can finally have citizenship in a state that represents them. All Palestinians are connected to me the same way a Jewish person in Warsaw (Poland) is connected with one in Sydney (Australia). Jews belong to the same cultural identity, and I have the same cultural identity as the millions of Palestinians who are still stateless due to Zionism. As to what a future Palestinian state might mean for the 7 million of us living in the diaspora abroad, it would at least give us the option to move there if we chose to. Some might, some might not.
If there is one day an independent Palestinian state, do you think that it should have close relations with Israel, including trade, economic cooperation, cultural exchanges, etc.?
This question assumes that Israel and Palestine would be two separate countries. My preference could be a federation like the one we have in Australia. We would all live in the same country, move around without borders, carry the same passports, but vote in separate legislatures and have an arrangement on distinct zones that would continue to maintain their Jewish and Palestinian Arab demographic majorities. Under such a federated arrangement, Israel and Palestine would be the same country, a bit like Bosnia and Herzegovina. But let’s pretend for a moment that we did have a two-state solution. If a peace treaty was signed, I see no reason why we wouldn’t have close relations with Israel, including trade, economic cooperation, and cultural exchanges, even though it would be awkward for Muslim Arabs to go to the Al-Aqsa Mosque knowing that some Jewish people wish to see their Third Temple built on top of that site. Should they just drop their anxiety and pretend that this isn’t the case? Imagine if there was a group of people praying for a Messianic age where they could rebuild their temple on top of St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Would Catholics be calling for cultural exchange with those people? So yes, I’m all for all this in theory, but terms have to be mutually agreed to before that happens.
Are you hopeful about the future of your people?
Not really, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up. The evolution of Zionist rhetoric and the level of support it continues to have from the West leaves me little hope that our people could ever achieve statehood in our lifetime. Let’s face it, many people in the West who speak about this topic haven’t asked themselves some fundamental questions about the nature of this conflict. Was it reasonable to expect Palestinians to roll out the red carpet in 1917 when modern political Zionism, a nationalist ideology fathered by Theodore Herzl out of Budapest (Hungary) in 1882, tried to build a state over a territory with an existing population to facilitate a largely foreign-born population? Jewish people made up barely 8% of the population in 1917 while Levantine Arabs made up 92%. Zionism wanted to build a country, and the only way to achieve that was by rearranging these ratios. They had to bring in as many diaspora Jews as they could into historic Palestine to give themselves the numbers to democratically elect Jewish politicians. This has occurred at the expense of my people, and it could only have occurred at the expense of my people. There was no other way. The fact that the world continues to pick sides rather than push for both sides to come up with a solution gives me little hope that the future would be different. But we must try to achieve peace every step of the way, and that’s what I do. As a Melkite Catholic, I certainly do not condone armed resistance of any kind. Jesus teaches us that. The only reasonable way to resolve this conflict is by honest yet constructive dialogue and diplomacy. I search for optimism in a world fraught with pessimism. I engage with both Palestinian and Zionist communities and try my best to create dialogue that leads to understanding.
You say that Zionism is a nationalist ideology invented in 1882, but Zionism is simply the belief in Jewish self-determination on traditional Jewish land, which is not a new concept. It is well over 2000 years old. If you want Jews to recognize Palestinian history, don’t you think that you should demonstrate understanding of Jewish history?
For many years, Jewish communities around the world were hoping and praying for them or their descendants to move to the land of Israel, but this is just half the story. The other half is that this form of proto-Zionism came with the caveat that only G-d could deliver the Jews into that land through the Messiah. This was the mainstream view within Jewish thought, and Theodor Herzl went against this to start modern political Zionism. His point was that the Jewish people had waited and waited for this Messiah to come and rescue them, but no such Messiah seemed to be coming. The way he saw it, things were getting tougher for Jews in Europe, and it was time that Jews ceased living as minorities in foreign lands, so there ought to be a Jewish state (which means Jews ruling over Jews).
The only thing in common between proto-Zionism and modern political Zionism is the desire for Jews to rule Jews in that land. The method by which such an ambition was to be brought to reality was as highly a contested matter back then as it remains today for some Jews, such as the Neturei Karta movement. Neturei Karta’s position is in sync with how mainstream Jews used to think until the 1930s. It was Rabbi Avraham Isaak Kook who put the internal debate within Jewish thought at rest by reconciling proto-Zionism with modern political Zionism.
So, to answer your question, I know that Zionism is imbedded deeply within Jewish thought, but the root of the conflict has less to do with such abstract definitions of Zionism and more to do with what the implementation of Zionism has done on the ground, i.e., the cumulative impact that it has had on the existing inhabitants of the land.
So where does that leave the Palestinians? The fact is that Israel, even if the left was to suddenly come back to power again, will never agree to any form of Palestinian self-determination (two states or federation) as long as factions that are sworn to Israel’s destruction are in control of the Palestinians. You are willing to discuss solutions peacefully even if there is a big gap between your outlook and the outlook of most Zionists, but extremist Palestinians dominate the Palestinian discourse. Is there anything that Palestinians like you can do to change this?
I don’t agree that the primary barrier to peace is Palestinian incitement. This characterization denies the reality that has occurred on the ground for the past 140 plus years. The sole goal of Zionism always was, still is, and always will be to establish a Jewish demographic majority where one doesn’t exist. This is the root of the conflict.
It is unfortunate that the resentment of Zionism has led some Palestinians to armed resistance, which I most certainly do not condone or view in any way as constructive, but Israel is the one with the means to enact change. For extremist groups to start losing popularity, you need to convince the Israeli establishment to give up their desire to achieve a Jewish demographic majority where one doesn’t exist naturally. By this I mean, abandon the settlement project, stop organizations like Ateret Cohanim from chewing up Palestinian land, and stop settler movements like the Nachalot group headed by Daniella Weiss from allowing Jewish settlers to steal Palestinian land which they never paid for. This is what needs to happen. You fix the root cause, and the symptoms will go away. We can’t get caught up debating symptoms while we pay zero attention to the root cause.
In June 1967, after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, if Zionism permitted coexistence with Palestinians, Israel would have annexed the newly captured territories and would have given everyone Israeli passports. Instead, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol not only allowed, but encouraged Israeli citizens from the pre-1967 lands to start moving into the post-1967 lands and build settlements. He also encouraged diaspora Jews to make Aliyah by providing them with heavily subsidized homes in the newly acquired lands. By doing so, Israel created a two-tier system where Jewish people had a passport, citizenship, access to government facilities, and the right to vote in Israeli elections. It didn’t matter whether they were Sabra (Israeli born) or Olim (foreign born). They all had equal rights if they were Jewish. Palestinians, on the other hand, were given a blue ID card called a hawiyyeh. They were required to show these at checkpoints and go through screening. There were Israeli military tanks patrolling Palestinian town centres in Ramallah, Jenine, Nablus, Tulkarm, Bethlehem, Hebron, etc. These stateless Palestinians without any civic rights were forced to use the Israeli shekel as the currency and send their kids to school with the school bus driving past Israeli tanks.
There were no extremist resistance organizations back then. There was a military power (Israel) backed by a military superpower (the United States) contributing billions of dollars in military aid, with cutting edge technology used by an army, an air force, and a navy controlling the lives of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip who had none of that. The Palestinians were a largely civilian population with no rights, all because we weren’t from the right ethnic group. Even then, Palestinians put up with these horrible living conditions for a full twenty years before the first intifada started. That uprising didn’t come from thin air. There was 20 years of context, and that history is tied to the Nakba of 1948 when 492 Palestinian towns and villages were depopulated, and a million Palestinians were displaced from their homes.
When we talk about Palestinian extremism, we should also note that Israel initially supported Hamas against Fatah. Is Israel exempt from criticism for doing this? It has certainly contributed to making my job, as a Palestinian who wants peace, harder.
So, to answer your question, the only thing that we can do is to engage on various platforms like this and try our best to explain the situation in a way that doesn’t attack Zionists personally but explains the Palestinian perspective honestly and accurately.
Update on Dec 29, 2021: Changed “There was no extremist resistance back then” to “There were no extremist resistance organizations back then”.