Mahmoud Abbas’s Speech at the UN

Mahmoud Abbas’s Speech at the UN

by Karim Abuawad

Despite the fact that I was never a supporter of the Palestinian Authority, I have to say that I was very impressed with President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the UN last Friday. Granted, the Palestinian UN bid for statehood and Abbas’s speech will yield few tangible results on the ground. Life in Palestine will change little: the roadblocks will remain, the illegal settlements will continue to grow, eating up the land of the future Palestinian state, and the Israeli government, with the help of a right-wing, extremist Knesset, will continue issuing racist laws designed to make life harder than it already is for Palestinians.

This gloomy assessment, however, should in no way obscure the importance of Abbas’s speech and the PA’s UN bid for statehood. The importance of the speech has nothing to do with emotions or sentimentality. In addition to calling Obama’s bluff on his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, Abbas, through a well-crafted speech, has also signaled a change in the terms of reference. For the first time in two decades (since the ill-fated Oslo Accords), Abbas has talked about a struggle against an aggression that lasted for 63 years (since 1948) rather than a struggle against an occupation that lasted for 44 years (since 1967). One of the things the Oslo Accords is criticized for is its erasure of the ethnic cleansing that took place in 1948 (see Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine), the results of which are still evident in refugee camps in several countries as well as in the occupied West bank and Gaza Strip. The Oslo Accords failed to address this key question because they were written as if nothing had happened before 1967. Abbas chose to bring up this critical question, while reminding his audience at the UN General Assembly that he himself was a victim of this ethnic cleansing when his family was forced to leave the costal city, Jaffa. He also reminded his audience that Palestinians have already compromised when they accepted the premise of peace in exchange for a state on the land occupied in 1967. How can they be asked to make more compromises? How can they be accused of being so stubborn as to refuse to compromise?

When it was the turn for the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to address the General Assembly, the concrete terms of reference outlined by Abbas were countered by an interesting assortment of Biblical stories and a genealogy of ancient names. In an op-ed piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Gideon Levy wrote that

The world and the auditorium cheered for Abbas because he spoke like a 21st-century statesman, not like a co-opted archaeologist of centuries past. Abraham or Ibrahim, Hezekiah or Netanyahu, Benjamin or Jacob-Israel, Jew or Judea – our prime minister’s Bible and Holocaust stories should have made Israelis sitting down to their Friday night dinner feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Of course, not all Palestinians admired Abbas’s speech or supported the UN bid. The crowds that cheered for him upon his return to Ramallah and the news coverage that constantly talk about the “surge” in Abbas’s popularity should not fool anybody into believing that all Palestinians now wholeheartedly support the PA or the president. Some of the people in these crowds were civil servants who were dismissed early on the day of the president’s return in order to welcome him. Others were people who belong to the president’s political faction, and those are the people who are ready to show their support any day of the week.

The people who chose not show up for rallies because of their critical stance vis-à-vis the UN bid are taking all these developments with a grain of salt. Surely, they have all the right to question these new developments rather than participate in a fanfare before knowing what good this bid will bring them. Having said that, some of these critics have attacked, or even mocked, the UN bid either on the grounds of their distrust of anything the PA engages in, or on the grounds of legal concerns, claiming that the bid will ultimately compromise the right of return of Palestinian refugees because the state proposed is one on the 1967 borders while most refugees were expelled from the part of historical Palestine on which Israel was established in 1948.

While not qualified to comment on the legal concerns, which might, after all, be valid, I can comment on the reactions of the people who oppose anything the PA proposes, often without truly evaluating the PA’s actions. It goes without saying that it’s important to have people around who never sing the praises of those in power and instead take them to task. However, the criticism of the PA’s bid which I heard over the past few days doesn’t fall into this category. Calling Abbas’s speech a publicity stunt, or accusing him of “riding the wave” of the Arab Spring can hardly be considered credible critique. At the end of the day, the bid and Abbas’s speech showed us that the world still supports the Palestinian cause, that the “international community” isn’t made up of only the US and Western Europe, that Palestinians are indeed capable of saying No to the US administration, and that if Palestinian are determined to stand by their principles, they will find out that the free people of the world will stand with them. This isn’t an overdone sentimentality; it is the truth that was expressed through the 15 standing ovations that president Abbas received at the General Assembly.

Queen Eileen and the Twisted Knickers of Feminism

As soon as I read Susan Faludi’s essay American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide (Harpers Oct 2010) I felt a little uncomfortable bunching in my undergarments. Faludi tells a lamentable tale concerning the history of the feminist movement where every succeeding generation denounces those that went before. Her premise is that there have been three significant “waves” of feminist activity and thought: the First Wave who were truly hardcore and suffered incarceration, force-feeding and widespread derision to win the vote for women: the Second Wave who emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s and worked to establish sexual equality, sexual liberation and rights for women and children: finally the Third Wave who have championed gender issues and delved into race, gender and pop culture studies and scandalized their predessessors by proclaiming  Lady Gaga as the future of feminism. READ MORE

The Trouble With Egypt

The Trouble With Egypt

by Karim Abuawad

Since the night the Tunisian people forced their dictator to flee the North African country, I’ve been hearing people anticipating that the same fate would fall on the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. In fact, the similarities abound between the situation in Tunisia and in Egypt: Tunisia’s Zain Bin Ali ruled for 23 years, Mubarak has been in power for 29, both of them amassed enormous fortunes, both have created “royal families” that rule so-called republics, both of them have been indifferent to the high level of unemployment (especially among highly qualified people and university graduates), and, finally, both had governments which for years have been described as “governments of businessmen.”

It is also worth mentioning that Egypt and Tunisia are countries that have well developed civil societies that are politically mature. This is important because these ingredients could mean the difference between the establishment of more democratic societies and utter chaos. READ MORE

Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech: On Learning Hebrew in Israel

by Letitia Trent

As our plane arrived in Israel’s airspace, I listened to Pimsleur’s Hebrew lessons on my headphones, which go over the same phrases in half-hours of repetition, the accent-less audio-guide voice followed by the native speakers, who respond to his commands (Tell her you do not speak Hebrew. Ask her how she is doing today. Say “let’s go to my place”). I practiced the way the female voice’s inflection went up at the end of certain phrases, such as beseder (OK or Good).

I had tried to study ahead of our scheduled move to Tel Aviv. In Burlington, Vermont, my husband Zach and I had weekly basic Hebrew lessons from an Israeli man studying in Burlington. He was young, with messy black hair, but had a courtly, polite, and serious demeanor that belied everything I’d read about Israeli youth from the Let’s Go Israel! travel book.  He photocopied Hebrew words and phrases transliterated into English for us and insisted that we had to study. We tried to please him, but usually had lost the worksheets or neglected to study them at each meeting. We met once a week, which wasn’t enough for anything to stick. By the time we boarded the plane, after a month of visiting family in Oklahoma and Arkansas, we’d forgotten everything. Pimsleur didn’t help. By the end of the flight, I knew how to say “I don’t speak Hebrew”, “I don’t understand Hebrew”, and “Do you speak English?” It would have taken another five or six hours of listening to get past the words for hotel, the taxi, and the bills and down to something substantial. By the time we landed at Ben Gurion, we had no Hebrew but assertions about how we cannot speak it.


Although I’ve never been particularly quick when it comes to subjects like Math or Science, I’ve excelled in language since Elementary school. My memories of school are punctuated with sudden realizations that what others seemed to struggle with—reading, vocabulary, comprehension—came easy to me. I can remember a whole section of read-and-respond comprehension questions in a standardized test where we had to read a dry, boring history text and then respond to questions about the meanings of sections. I finished the test and set down my test booklet. I noticed, then, that everybody else was still working—most still reading the text. This wasn’t a source of pride, but curiosity: how could something so essential to me, language, be so difficult for everyone else? My inner life from the ages of eight to seventeen came almost exclusively from books. I was shy and physically isolated from other people my age (I lived in the woods, by highways, and didn’t own a car until I got married), and so I learned about people who were not me from books.  I didn’t understand what everyone else had inside of their heads, if it wasn’t books.

Before moving  to Tel Aviv, I’d imagined that my primary discomfort would be in speaking to people, but this is not the case. About 85 % of people in Israel speak English, and even more in Tel Aviv. The problem isn’t speaking to people so much as grasping the general tone of a place based on the signs, the advertisements, what people choose to put on chalkboards outside of bars and restaurants.  Now, the world around me is encoded in chunky Hebrew letters which carry messages that I don’t understand.  A billboard by the sea, featuring a picture of a boy smiling, his hands folded school-picture style on the table before him and with a paragraph of block-text to his right, baffles. Is this billboard an advertisement, a warning, or a public service announcement?

I can recognize letters and some words, but for the first time in over twenty years, I have to try to read. I sound out Hebrew words painfully, like a child. The feeling brings me back to elementary school, when I hated speaking out loud in class so much that I flatly refused to read aloud, so I was eventually put into remedial reading classes, where we practiced sounding out words slowly, hunched over our desks with our fingers under each letter. The remedial reading room gave me sympathy for those who couldn’t read well. It was embarrassing to be stuck on a hard combination of letters, like the word thought, it’s unmercifully illogical “ou” and “ght” combinations, which sound nothing like the individual sounds of those words.

After almost four months of Israel, as soon as someone comes up to me speaking Hebrew, every bit of Hebrew I’ve learned falls out of my head. I get tongue-tied, afraid that I’m wasting somebody’s time and end up saying the only words that come to me: Anglit (English), I say, apologetically, Slicha, Slicha (sorry/excuse me), Ani rac medeberette anglit (I only speak English).


In our neighborhood, the old city of Jaffa, or Yafo, as it’s pronounced in Israel, Arab shops and restaurants outnumber Jewish ones. At first, I tried to speak in Arabic to the Arab shop owners and Hebrew to the Jewish ones. In almost every shop in Yafo (above the cash register, usually) you’ll find some indication of the religion of the shop owner. In Arab shops, you’ll often find fancy Arabic calligraphy or a Tree of the Prophets of Islam. In Jewish shops, you’ll often find a chamsa (hand-shaped good-luck charm).

I heard from Zach that one of his friends, a non-Israeli who speaks Hebrew fluently, found that some Arabs find it offensive for Hebrew speakers to try to speak Arabic. Though Israel officially has two languages—Hebrew and Arabic—Hebrew is the spoken language of the country, and in my experience, few Jews are fluent in Arabic. Many Arab-Israelis, though they know and speak Hebrew, speak Arabic with each other (you hear it in the streets of Yafo, coming from clouds of perfumed smoke at nargilla bars or groups of young men at coffee shops). The language is one way to retain Arab culture in a country dominated by Judaism and Jewish culture.

My Israeli friend D, though, told me that it isn’t so clear cut. The problem isn’t just Hebrew and Arabic: it’s any dominant language confronted with a more marginalized one.  Of course, you can speak any language with a heart of condescension, with a sense of ridiculous pride that you’ve spent ten minutes on the internet looking up the correct words for hello and goodbye. This can happen anywhere.

Anything done with kindness will be understood as kindness, she told me. I am still not sure.

Language is personal, political, and what we use to wound and show superiority. My native language is a bully, and the language I’m learning is tied to the concept of Zionism, which I imagine that most Arab-Israelis resent. I don’t know how my intended kindness translates.


Our Ulpan teacher, Chava, holds up her hands as we stumble over the Hebrew letters.

Hebrew is simple, she says. Hebrew is not a problem.

She’s right. Hebrew, unlike most languages I’ve tried to learn, is very regular and is indeed not much of a problem outside of the different alphabet, pronunciation, and maddening lack of vowels. Hebrew is so regular because its spoken form was largely constructed, with modern words added to the lexicon. Hebrew, after the diaspora in 70CE, remained primarily in written form through religious texts. When early Zionist leaders such as Ben Yehuda set about systematizing, modernizing, and creating the new/ancient language of Hebrew, they understand why it was so important: a culture must have its own language. Taking a common European language wouldn’t have worked: Israel had to reach back farther.

It’s astonishing to think about how new spoken Hebrew is. In 1881, when Ben Yehuda moved to Palestine and insisted on speaking only Hebrew with his family, he was probably the only Jew in Palestine speaking Hebrew exclusively in the home. Now, a little over a hundred years later, an entire nation speaks it, and the language has grown from its roots into its own, strange creature.

The difficulty arises in Ulpan class of exactly how to teach Hebrew. Do you teach schoolbook Hebrew or Hebrew the way it is spoken, which is often in an extremely contracted form with frequent intrusions of other languages, such as Yiddish, German, and Arabic? For example, while standing in the line at the bank or grocery store in Israel, if you don’t move quite quickly enough, you might hear yalla, yalla, usually from an elderly man or woman at the back of the line. Yalla is an Arabic word. Once, in a taxi on our way back from a party, we heard the taxi driver explain to a passenger in the front seat—a Transylvanian woman working in Israel—that the word yalla was not actually a Hebrew word.

We took it from the Arabs, he explained. It means move.


As an American, I have the benefit and the curse of not having to pay much attention to my culture, my language, my identity. I do not have to fight to hold onto it, to make sure my language doesn’t die or my rituals are preserved—the US is ubiquitous, and knowing English is (unfortunately—but that’s a whole other essay) considered a necessity for success in most countries. My language is the language on T-shirts and products from Shanghai to Paris. Israel, a country just over 60 years old, had to create fluency in a relatively short period of time in order to unify a culturally and linguistically diverse citizenship. The Ulpan system was created as an easy, quick way to teach immigrants Hebrew, and it seems to work: though it doesn’t make people immediately fluent, it does provide an “in” to the culture that isn’t always offered in other countries.

My Ulpan class isn’t traditional. No olim chadashim (new immigrants), and Zach and I are probably the oldest people in the class. The majority of us are non-Jewish. We consist of three Chinese students, four Americans, and half-dozen Polish students who seem to have an uncanny ability to pick up the language but don’t seem to recognize the Jewish religious songs that Chava sings, which makes me think they didn’t get the basics of Hebrew through a synagogue. I’m not sure if they’ve studied before (Zach’s theory) or if their young, elastic brains make it easy for them to learn another language compared to my older, less flexible brain (my theory).

The Polish students speak Polish to each other and English to Chava. They turn to each other sometimes and speak perfectly easy, fluent Polish, and it makes me wonder at fluency at all: how do we all learn to navigate our native language so easily? I wish that I had access to their language, too. Compared to Polish, I have a good start in Hebrew. I know over 25 verbs. I can request to go to the bathroom, ask for food, and tell somebody that I want to shop or speak or walk. I know nothing about Polish. There are so many languages I will never know, books I will never read in their original languages, and people I will never know as deeply as a native speaker of their language could. There simply isn’t enough time to understand more than a few languages in one lifetime.


In my opinion, the saddest Bible story is of the Tower of Babel. Once, there was a universal language that everybody spoke, and we all understood each other. Since we all understood each other, we could organize, and soon, people began to build larger towns and higher buildings, which angered God:

And the LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’

Note here what the problem really is: it’s the fact that humans, when they understand each other, can work together, which creates so much promise that even God is jealous

I’ve been studying Hebrew for two months, and I’m amazed at what I still cannot say. I can’t explain in Hebrew why studying languages ultimately depresses me, though I need and love to do it and could never live in a country without at least trying to understand the language(s) spoken there.  I can’t explain in Hebrew why I am a writer, why I don’t miss the United States, or why I don’t know where I’ll live after we’ve left here and why am happy about that fact. I can’t say anything important yet—but compared to Russian, German, Cherokee, Swedish, Icelandic, Japanese, and on and on, I can make due. Making due, at least when it comes to language, never feels like enough.