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Adwan: Mohammed El-Kurd’s visit to campus indicates a shift in the Palestine narrative

El-Kurd’s visit to campus was yet another step toward validating the Palestinian side of the story.
Image by Mary Ellen Ritter

Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian writer who rose to prominence last year for speaking against land theft in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in the West Bank, visited campus on Jan. 21 for a question-and-answer session hosted by Students for Justice in Palestine.

Half an hour before the event started, the Mayo auditorium was populated with an enthusiastic, keffiyeh-clad audience. A copy of “Rifqa”, El-Kurd’s debut poetry collection, poked out of a woman’s purse, its pages interspersed with brightly colored sticky notes.

Many audience members arrived with their culture on full display. Maysoon Wazwaz, a Palestinian student at Metropolitan State University, sported a black, red-embroidered thobe, traditional wear for Palestinian women.

“I’m very excited,” Wazwaz said. “I love him.”

Others were less thrilled about El-Kurd’s appearance.

“MUST-SEE: SSI’s ‘welcome’ to Jew-Hater on Campus!” read an email sent to Students Supporting Israel’s mailing list. The email, which went so far as to describe El-Kurd as one of Twitter’s “most prolific antisemites,” contained images of posters plastered around campus, featuring a cartoon Pinocchio holding a sign that read “JEW-HATER.”

Such a reaction, while disappointing, is to be expected in conversations about Palestine. SSI was employing one of the occupation’s most effective tactics: branding anyone who supports the liberation of Palestine an antisemite.

Such a broad designation is flawed for several reasons — the most important being that not all Jews are zionists, nor are all zionists Jewish. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace are led by Jewish anti-zionists. Conversely, many Zionists are not Jewish but rather evangelical Christians. Any argument founded on the premise of equating Zionism with Judaism is grossly misleading.

The event, led by SJP president Nadia Aruri, was frequently humorous in tone despite the heavy subject matter.

Once El-Kurd was seated, he thanked the audience for coming out despite the cold and snow. “I don’t know if that’s normal for this city,” he said, giving rise to a burst of laughter from the audience.

El-Kurd addressed the weak points in Western coverage of Palestine, specifically calling out the media’s tendency to either victimize or vilify Palestinians to an extreme. He also noted that the framing of the mainstream narrative is often intentionally constructed to reinforce the trope of Palestinians as villains.

“You don’t have to address their red herrings,” El-Kurd said. “You are not the defendant here.”

This was in part a reference to El-Kurd’s interview with CNN last year regarding the land theft in Sheikh Jarrah. “Do you support the protests — the violent protests — that have erupted in solidarity with you and other families in your position?” he was asked.

“Do you support the violent dispossession of me and my family?” he responded.

El-Kurd’s pivot reflected the shift in the narrative that followed rampant Israeli violence in Palestine last May. This phenomenon of Palestinian voices directing the conversation about Israeli occupation was undoubtedly contributed to by the global social unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

“I don’t think our campaign this year — the global shift in rhetoric, people taking to the streets all around the world — would have been possible had it not been for the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd,” El-Kurd said in a 2021 interview with Jewish Currents.

Something El-Kurd repeatedly circled back to in this session was the depth of the Palestinian identity, beyond the western clichés of either terrorist or helpless victim. He talked about Palestinians that inspired him, like poet Rashid Hussein and filmmaker Elia Suleiman, and the power of art to fuel movements and create collective meaning.

“We are allowed to exist outside of our victimhood,” El-Kurd said.

El-Kurd’s discussion was brilliant, but the importance of the event transcended its content. The mere presence of a prominent Palestinian writer on campus, sans any sort of tangible opposition (SSI’s meager postering operation aside), is monumental in a world where journalists can lose their jobs and students can be pulled out of class for being pro-Palestine.

I am not naive enough to be blindly optimistic about the future of the country my father emigrated from decades ago, nor to believe that a strong social media movement is enough to dismantle a colonial superpower.

What I do feel very strongly, however, is that the Israeli occupation’s vice grip on the dominant political narrative is more penetrable than ever. Their calculated usage of language — “defense” as opposed to “assault,” “eviction” as opposed to “ethnic cleansing,” “conflict” as opposed to “occupation” — is no longer enough to maintain the facade.

El-Kurd’s visit to campus was more than just an event. It was yet another step toward validating the Palestinian side of the story.

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