The great African American poet Langston Hughes penned a brief and powerful poem in 1951 titled “Harlem.” It begins, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Hughes then ponders, does it dry up, fester, stink, crust and sugar over, or sag “like a heavy load?” The final line bursts onto the page, “Or does it explode?”
The Palestinians’ own dream of nationhood and self-determination has been deferred for decades. It has festered and sagged and experienced a number of explosions, like the intifadas of 1987 and 2000. But not only has this dream been indefinitely deferred, Israel’s policies have tried to undermine or destroy it since 1948, when the state of Israel was declared and Palestinians became refugees. The United Nations reports that Palestinians “remain the largest and longest-standing refugee population in the world.” Like the message in Langston Hughes’s poem, this multi-decade and nefarious status quo—which includes a brutal military occupation and relentless discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel—exacerbates the explosive nature of current relations between Israelis and Palestinians.
When US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a press conference at the White House on February 15, 2017, they not only glossed over these oppressive policies toward the Palestinians—saying nothing about “the daily humiliation, brutality, and violence of the occupation,” for example—but engaged in blatant hate-mongering and racism. Much of the analysis of their vaunted meeting has focused on the Israeli-instigated demise of the two-state solution, for decades a cornerstone of US policy regarding Israel and Palestine, and on Israel’s settlement building project in the occupied Palestinian territories, which is illegal under international law. However, one fundamental issue has received little attention: their insidious and blanket maligning of the Palestinian people.
During this meeting, it was Netanyahu who first claimed that Palestinians “continue to call for Israel’s destruction—inside their schools, inside their mosques, inside the textbooks.” A few minutes later, Trump reinforced this longstanding trope, lumping millions of Palestinians together as one monolithic, hostile, and evil class of people. He said, “I think the Palestinians have to get rid of some of that hate that they’re taught from a very young age. They’re taught tremendous hate … it starts at a very young age and it starts in the school room.”
To say that all Palestinians are taught to hate—or that they behave or think in a homogeneous way—is an egregious case of stereotyping. Basic social psychology textbooks explain that stereotyping leads to prejudice, which in turn leads to discrimination. Examples abound in US history, including the infamous decision to intern Japanese Americans during World War II. The painful experience of the African American community is also a prime example of the slippery slope from stereotyping and prejudice to racism and discrimination.
In Israel, such racism has resulted in the enactment of over 50 laws “that directly or indirectly discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in all areas of life, including their rights to political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures.” A recent example of Israeli discrimination was a decision on February 6, 2017, often called the “land grab law,” which legalized the actual theft of Palestinian land, on which thousands of settlement homes are built in the occupied territories. The omnipresent climate of the erosion of Palestinian human and civil rights has made it possible for Israelis to be oblivious to such developments and to accept the injustices perpetrated against Palestinians, whether inside Israel or in the occupied territories. It has also made them internalize the idea that Palestinians are bad people who do not deserve basic rights. The recent and controversial Israeli court decision to give a light sentence—18 months—to the Israeli soldier, Elor Azaria, who killed a wounded and immobilized Palestinian assailant, illustrates the institutional discrimination against Palestinians well. It is shocking to hear that two-thirds of the Israeli public support a pardon of this soldier, as does Benjamin Netanyahu. The UN human rights office, on the other hand, was “deeply disturbed” by the verdict, calling it “excessively lenient” and “unacceptable,” adding that “The case risks undermining confidence in the justice system and reinforcing the culture of impunity.”
What is often brought up is that Palestinian textbooks play a large role in promoting hate against Israelis. In fact, a comprehensive study of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks during 2009-2012, funded by the US State Department, found that “claims by both sides that they are demonized by the other were unfounded. ‘Types of extreme demonising or dehumanising characterisations of 'the other' are absent from all the textbooks,’ [Yale professor and study leader Bruce Wexler] said.” It is important to note that the research was conducted by a diverse group of experts—Israeli, Palestinian, and American—and commissioned by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, which represents Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders.
But similar to Trump’s continuous attacks on the media as promulgating “fake news,” such claims, although self-serving and largely debunked, continue to be voiced by Israeli leaders and Israel sympathizers in order to question the credibility of Palestinians and their legitimate rights. One feels a need to remind those on the international stage that it is the Palestinians who are the victims here. They are the ones who are experiencing profound injustices: their land is being swallowed up by settlements on territory Israel occupies militarily, their houses are demolished and children are imprisoned, they are walled into cities and towns unable to move between them or access their agricultural land, and their human, civil, and national rights are daily abrogated by a ruthless military occupation.
Netanyahu went further in his remarks to paint all Palestinians as violent and refusing to recognize Israel—which, in fact, the PLO recognized in 1993 as a lead-up to the Oslo Accords. Nevertheless, the prime minister’s words reinforced longstanding stereotypes and prejudices against the Palestinians which continue to set the stage for their national and civil disenfranchisement.
No progress toward peace, whether under a one-state or a two-state rubric, will be successful unless Palestinians are treated with dignity and justice. In the end, the dream of justice that is deferred will become a nightmare, for both Israelis and Palestinians.