Author of ‘Best Speech by an Israeli Diplomat Ever’ Calls Time on Palestinian ‘Narrative of Victimhood’ (INTERVIEW)
I first encountered the name of George Deek at the end of September, when a reader sent me a link to an entry on a Norwegian blog headlined “The best speech an Israeli diplomat ever held.” Whether the speech deserved that ultimate praise is an open question, but it was certainly one of the more powerful personal accounts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I’ve ever read. The fact that its author was a 30 year old Christian Arab citizen of Israel, a native of Jaffa, and the current number two at the Israeli Embassy in Oslo, with an enviable command of Arabic, Hebrew and English, only made the person of George Deek more intriguing.
This week, I conducted a long interview with Deek over the phone. He spoke rapidly and eloquently for over an hour, weaving his personal story into the wider fabric of the Middle East’s myriad ethnic, religious and political conflicts. Deek made the case that his own, sometimes frustrating, quest to succeed in a Jewish state offers a scintilla of hope to the other countries of the Middle East, where – as we are seeing once again in Iraq and Syria – sectarian and communal divides are much more stark and brutal. That he did so with a charm that almost compels you to agree with him is by the bye; the intellectual merits of his arguments warrant serious consideration, and perhaps indicate that Deek has a future ahead of him as a liberal Arab writer or politician.
Deek and I began our conversation with the subject of 1948, and what Palestinians call the “Nakba” - the Arabic word for “catastrophe” that is used to describe the creation of the State of Israel. In his September speech, Deek had remarked that “you don’t need to be an anti-Israeli to acknowledge the humanitarian disaster of the Palestinians in 1948, namely the Nakba;” what, I asked, did he mean by that?
“The Palestinians suffered a humanitarian disaster during the Nakba,” Deek said. “People were driven out of their homes because of intimidation, or because of the warnings of other leaders. It can’t be described as anything other than a terrible tragedy.”
There can be no debate, Deek stressed, over whether this tragedy befell the Arabs of Palestine. “Otherwise my family would not have been scattered all over the globe,” he said, “from Canada in the west, to Australia and the Gulf countries.” But, he continued, “the question is not what happened, by why it happened.”
Just as the Palestinians are themselves scattered, Deek posits, so is the responsibility for their plight. Fundamentally, he said, the events of 1948 were driven by the same Arab refusal to recognize the Jewish state that plagues the region today. Referring to the recent poll on anti-Semitism conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, Deek reflected with sadness on the fact that “80 to 90 percent on average in the Arab countries have anti-Semitic attitudes – they think the Jews control the media, and politics, and so on.” With that in mind, he wondered what “things might have been like if the Palestinians would have said to the Jews, ‘Welcome back. This is your home, but it’s also our home, so let’s find a way that we can live here together.'” As Deek acknowledges, that was not a message that Arab leaders, centrally the pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, were particularly keen to communicate. Throughout the Arab world, war was declared on both the Jewish State and the idea of the Jewish State.
Back in Jaffa, the Deek household was not enamored of either of these goals; neither his mother nor his father’s families were especially political, Deek said. But like many other Palestinians, the outbreak of war meant displacement, and the Deek family, bullied into leaving by Arab emissaries who insisted that they would return once military victory had been secured over the Zionist forces, found itself in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
“For my family, the significant part of the story was what happened after the war,” Deek said. He explained that his grandfather, also named George, had worked for Rotenberg electricity company in Jaffa, where he had made many Jewish friends. Stranded in Lebanon, where his new wife Vera gave birth to a son, George Sr. was determined to return to his home in Jaffa. He did just that, thanks to “an act of grace” from his friends in the electricity company, who also got him his old job back.
“To go back, not to do what their brothers and sisters did, but to take a chance, to live in Jaffa among those whom they were told were their enemies, and make them friends, to not be defined as victims, that was the decision my grandparents made,” said Deek.
If Deek’s grandparents were one source of inspiration for his rejection of an identity defined by victimhood, the other was his beloved music teacher, a Holocaust survivor named Avraham Nov. “He was the ultimate victim. His whole family was murdered by the Nazis,” Deek said. “But he refused to be defined as a victim, because he knew that if he did that, he would be stuck in the past.”
“The narrative of victimhood is a narrative that paralyzes us and corrupts us morally,” Deek continued. “When a group defines itself as a victim, it no longer takes responsibility for what it does, even terrible crimes.” There is, Deek said, no incentive for any nation defined by victimhood, as the Palestinians are, “to recover. When you see yourself as a victim and you are treated like a victim, you become a prisoner of your own past.”
I put it to Deek that a detractor would counter that his grandfather, in returning to Jaffa, had an option that was denied to 750,000-odd other Palestinians, and that therefore casting off victimhood is something of a luxury.
“It’s true, I don’t think that other refugees had the same opportunity, even if they had wanted to go back,” he replied. “But that’s not the point. The point is that my grandfather went to a place where he could build a future, and this is the tragedy of the Arab world. The Arab world has treated the Palestinian refugees who stayed there shamefully. In Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf countries, they are denied citizenship, they do not have the basic human rights that others have, they are barred from leading professions, and this cruel discrimination prevents them from moving forward. So it’s not a question of where you are living. It’s question of us together, Arabs, Jews, the international community, putting pressure on those countries that are confining the Palestinians to that vicious reality.”
Deek voiced harsh criticism of UNWRA, the UN refugee agency tasked with serving Palestinian refugees (the overwhelming majority of them now descendants of the original 1948 generation,) for exactly the same reasons. “UNRWA is preventing the refugees from moving on,” he said.
Throughout our conversation, Deek emphasized his conviction that to be a member of a minority is “a blessing,” in that it creates an additional impetus to succeed in the wider society, as well as providing that society with a test of its own tolerance. On these counts, Deek said, the Arab world had failed.
“The acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state in the Middle East is inherently connected to our ability to accept Christians or Yezidis or Baha’i or anyone who is different,” Deek argued. Without its Christians, he observed, the Arab world would more precisely be described as the Muslim world. “We are the ones who make it Arab, by making it about something more than just Muslims. An Arab world that is not able to accept a Jewish state, an Arab world that cannot accept Christians within it, is a world without humanity.”
What, though, of the Arab citizens of Israel? If “assimilation” into Jewish society is impossible, Deek answered, and if “isolation” and separatism are undesirable, there is a third way nevertheless. For there is no inherent contradiction between preserving one’s Arab identity and fully participating in the life of the nation, Deek said, although he granted that effects of such an endeavor on individual psyches would certainly be unsettling.
Indeed, some of Deek’s experiences during his own journey through Israeli society starkly demonstrate the pettiness and prejudice from which minorities even in democratic societies are not immune. When he began job hunting after graduating with a law degree around a decade ago, he noticed that his Jewish friends, including those who’d achieved lower grades, were getting many more job interviews all the same. So Deek sent out his resume once again, this time with a Jewish name. Around 50 per cent of those firms that ignored him when he applied as an Arab, he told me, contacted him when he applied as a Jew.
“I faced discrimination as an Arab in Israel in the same way as an Algerian in France, or a Pakistani in Britain,” Deek said, placing the issue of prejudice in Israel in its appropriate context. Yet he didn’t choose the route of outing the law firms that wouldn’t consider an Arab applicant through some fiery exposure in the media. Instead, he said, he has found himself on a far more challenging path, which involves battling the prejudices of the majority on the one hand while declining the temptations of eternal victimhood on the other.
As we were about to end our conversation, Deek was anxious to tell me about the apartment building in Jaffa where he grew up, where the other residents were a Muslim family, a Christian family, an orthodox Jewish couple, and a Catholic priest. This, he said, was a metaphor for the kind of open society that Israel promises. “Israel is the only place in the Middle East where an Arab can say, ‘I live as an Arab in my homeland and in a liberal democracy with full rights,'” said Deek.
Expressing sentiments like these will inevitably put Deek in the vulnerable position of being demonized as a “collaborator” or dismissed as incoherent idealist. I somehow doubt, though, that Deek will lose his energy or his vision because of a few outside critics.
I suspect, in fact, that his response would be similar to the answer that the Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky offered his adversaries: “Defame if you must! The dream is greater than its slanderers. It need not fear their calumny.”