The Power of Nationalism: A micro-example

Whether one agrees with Samer Issawi’s politics or not, I thought his description of his family’s activism was a powerful illustration of what nationalism means at the individual level. Issawi, a Palestinian on a hunger strike in an Israeli jail, wrote

I am not the first member of my family to be jailed on my people’s long march towards freedom. My grandfather, a founding member of the PLO, was sentenced to death by the British Mandate authorities, whose laws are used by Israel to this day to oppress my people; he escaped hours before he was due to be executed. My brother, Fadi, was killed in 1994, aged just 16, by Israeli forces during a demonstration in the West Bank following the Ibrahimi mosque massacre in Hebron. Medhat, another brother, has served 19 years in prison. My other brothers, Firas, Ra’afat and Shadi were each imprisoned for five to 11 years. My sister, Shireen, has been arrested numerous times and has served a year in prison. My brother’s home has been destroyed. My mother’s water and electricity have been cut off. My family, along with the people of my beloved city Jerusalem, are continuously harassed and attacked, but they continue to defend Palestinian rights and prisoners.

The sense of broad family involvement and repeated sacrifice (as expressed primarily through jail time) tells us something about the level of commitment to the Palestinian cause and the belief in the idea of Palestinian peoplehood, self-determination, and nationalism. One can imagine other outs at certain moments such as emigration, political quietism, and a resigned acceptance to one’s fate. Yet none are mentioned here.

For Israelis who continue to believe that Palestinians are not a people worthy of self-determination or that Jordan may serve as the Palestinian state, Issawi’s statement provides a very inconvenient set of facts. Many Palestinians sure do think they are a people and seem determined to stand by that claim.

I am not suggesting this tells us everything we need to know about the likely outcome. Self-determination can be frustrated for a long time, perhaps indefinitely. But it does suggest to me that certain arguments just won’t have much traction. Pretending that we can go back to a time before Palestinian nationalism, or before Zionism for that matter, was a powerful ideology is pure fantasy.




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