On Palestine: An Open Conversation with Noura Erakat

by Noura Erakat, Céline Semaan

Originally released in Slow Factory’s Planet Justice textbook, this interview between Palestinian author and advocate Noura Erakat, and Slow Factory founder and Lebanese designer, Céline Semaan illuminates the ongoing fight for freedom and liberation of the Palestinian people as it relates to our collective liberation.

Céline Semaan In reading “Let them Drown” by Naomi Klein, she makes the connection between environmental struggles to the Palestinian cause. It is after all about land. She says, Edward Said​ was no tree-hugger. Descended from traders, artisans and professionals, he once described himself as ‘an extreme case of an urban Palestinian whose relationship to the land is basically metaphorical’.* In After the Last Sky, his meditation on the photographs of Jean Mohr, he explored the most intimate aspects of Palestinian lives, from hospitality to sports to home décor. The tiniest detail – the placing of a picture frame, the defiant posture of a child – provoked a torrent of insight from Said. Yet when confronted with images of Palestinian farmers – tending their flocks, working the fields – the specificity suddenly evaporated. Which crops were being cultivated? What was the state of the soil? The availability of water? Nothing was forthcoming. ‘I continue to perceive a population of poor, suffering, occasionally colorful peasants, unchanging and collective,’ Said confessed. This perception was ‘mythic’, he acknowledged – yet it remained.

When I read this, I was shocked, because a lot of us who grew up in the region, or were displaced, came back, grew up in diaspora, whatever… We come from this region where environmentalism is sort of a privilege. Like, we are not tree huggers in a way where we grow up thinking about the environment. Given Slow Factory’s and my work, we want to know from you and within your work, how land dispossession is, and has been, deeply connected with human rights and international law, but also climate?

Noura Erakat: I experienced my own change. I’m trained as an organizer and then trained as an attorney. In so many ways, as an attorney, you learn that you have a hammer, and you look for nails. It’s a very prescriptive kind of vocation, in the sense that you have a policy, there’s a problem, there’s a remedy, there’s a solution.

One of the things that I experienced in the writing of “Justice for Some,” is that when I got to the end of the book, I found myself in a similar place that I was before I started [writing]. It was a really difficult journey; the book was very hard to write. And yet I found myself thinking in the same way that I had before I started, which is about solutions. Solutions to Falasteen (Palestine) are articulated in this political equation: politics in the sense of a battle over scarce resources and how they ended up being divided.

Through that lens of politics defined in that way, as a competition over scarcity, or scarce resources and how a power determines their distribution, I found myself articulating only three ways forward, it’s either a binational state, it’s a Palestinian state with strong protections for the Jewish majority, or it’s two states, which are the same prescriptions that were presented to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine in 1947. So what the hell had I done if I had been thinking through that same framework, but also hadn’t produced anything different than what folks had thought of 70 years earlier in 1947? Shu stafadna? (What did we gain?)

But this is why writing and this is why creativity is so necessary because you get to be stuck. If it was just a path forward, you’re maybe just putting things down or you’re transcribing, but to be stuck is to be faced with a challenge and having to overcome that challenge. A dear friend of mine who is also an attorney, a movement lawyer, but was a founder of Law for Black Lives, says to me, “Maybe you should take a break and read some Afro Futurism.” To which I thought, ‘It’s been fun hanging out with you today, but I have to finish this book, and I have a deadline.’ But funny enough, I had been reading Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”, which is so scary if you think about our particular moment, and I was also reading all these other texts on settler colonialism about how you distinguish the native settler relationship and so on and so forth.

I remember vividly sitting up in my bed and thinking ‘Oh my God, she’s right!’ Here I was trying to think of how to get through this problem by looking at the present, how to heal the present or address the present, when what we’ve been taught by Afrofuturists is that we have to see the future, imagine the future, and build with whatever ladders, ropes, or mechanisms that will catapult us to that future. That’s what frees us! lf enslaved people had only thought of the present and had only thought, ‘How do we get away from a slave master?’ for example, they couldn’t have imagined a world where they were free, and had the wherewithal to fight at all costs for that.

So through that framework, I broke out of my own constrictive framework of ‘How do we deal with this?’ and very much engaged in what I call “Palestinian Futurism”, which expresses itself in many, many, many ways.

The way I concluded in the book is to imagine that the return of Palestinian refugees is not the resolution of our Palestinian struggle. That’s not the end, it’s the beginning. We have to imagine what happens the day after we all return. Now, what is the society that we create that is actually good for all of us? That is even a better future for Israelis than Israel has promised them also?

For them to belong in this land that we want, reimagines our relationship to land, because so much of the problem is that our struggle over land becomes a struggle over ownership or over title. The Bedouins demonstrated that their customary forms of ownership were actually legitimate, but because their lands weren’t registered, it let them be confiscated by the state, which upholds these very restrictive forms of ownership. It’s a fight over sovereignty. Sovereignty, that can only be incommensurate. There can only be one sovereign over the land. It’s either the Zionist settler, or the Palestinian native. But what happens when we discard sovereignty and think about our relationship as a relationship of belonging, which is infinite? In that relationship of belonging, is a responsibility.

So it’s not that the land belongs to us, but that we belong to the land. And in that belonging, we have to demonstrate a care for it, that isn’t just ‘It’s mine, and I own it,’ which actually, internally, for Palestinians is not a way forward at all. We’re far greater in numbers now. A family of 30 that was removed from their home might be a family of 250 today; if even that one Palestinian family were to resolve ownership, there would be a tremendous amount of conflict, as opposed to thinking, ‘No, no, the land doesn’t belong to us, we belong to it.’ That is a responsibility that has led me to think about the land in many different ways.

I wanted to document my own journey to get to this place where I’m actually consciously thinking about the land, as what we have a responsibility towards, which is very much in line with other Indigenous scholars and Indigenous people. It’s brought me to Indigenous resurgence, brought me to think about capitalism, and it’s brought me to think about common land as opposed to land as private land.

Céline: I love your response about that, and the responsibility to the land. As you said, it’s very similar to Indigenous sovereignty and to the Indigenous struggle. I’m gonna come back to this idea of indigeneity and narrative, but first, as an attorney, what are some of the existing narratives in both media and popular culture that end up affecting international laws?

Noura: My own theory on law is that law is very dynamic. Law is indeterminate. Law has no core meaning, but it’s given meaning through struggle, in the way that advocates advocate for the law, and the way that judges interpret the law and resolve the tensions between two or more conflicting parties. How that outcome comes to be has very much to do with power.

Think of the law, like the sail of a boat; if you were in a boat in the middle of the water, without any oars and without a sail, you would go nowhere. But, if you have a sail, you still move, but you don’t know where you’re gonna go. You’re gonna move, but you don’t know where; your movement is the wind. The law is the sail, where you go is the wind, and that wind is politics and power. So I’ve advocated, draw the sail when politics are not in your favor, lift the sail when they are in your favor, and stitch a new sail when possible.

So insofar as media, media shapes power. Media and narrative actually shapes the way that we understand power because it takes up imaginative space. It’s not that we have a consensus in our public imagination that immediately changes the law. It’s not that simple. There has been immediate change, for example, in the United States that we saw during the Unity Uprising— unequivocal media change. And yet, we also saw on the ground in Palestine, the situation became far worse. There isn’t a correlation, but public imagination becomes a necessary but insufficient element upon which we can continue to struggle. Media has everything to do with it. Media has everything to do with who you believe is an aggressor, who you believe is a victim, and who you believe is responsible.

The United States is the single most significant donor to Israel; it protects it diplomatically, financially, militarily. Americans can change the course of history. Of course, Israel can pivot and move to other benefactors, as they already are, through building inroads in China, India, and elsewhere, but it is our responsibility as Americans, to at least not be the source of the problem. How we understand this, is what Edward Said tells us after the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, is that there was nowhere in the media narrative or in the public imagination at all, the capacity to understand Palestinians and Lebanese people as victims. Regardless of the atrocities committed by the Israelis, there was no capacity to understand Palestinians as victims, because there was no conception of something known as a Palestinian homeland, period. So how is it that there can be no conception of that? Obviously, knowledge production is a part of it in the academy, but it’s the media that changes it.

Céline: So going back to what Edward Said, about Israel invading Lebanon, did that change the narrative of looking at Palestinians?

Noura: Not in 1982. He published this also in the London Review of Books in his essay, “Permission to Narrate ‘’ where that infamous line comes from, but his analytical point is that the media has no capacity! Even as Israel is committing massacres, even as Israeli society at the time had a Kahan Commission for the Israeli role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, which condemned and indicted Ariel Sharon, who was responsible for the operation at the time, even Israeli society had the capacity to do this while American US society did not because they did not have a conception of a Palestinian homeland that was taken away, to even understand why Palestinians would be defending themselves.

We’ve been taught to understand the Palestinian resort to use of force as hate, as antisemitic, as lustful, as Islamic barbarism and lack of civilization, precisely because we have failed to understand that Palestinians have suffered a wound. In their use of force, they’re actually defending themselves. This entire possibility of understanding Palestinian self defense has been taken away from us because of an inability to understand how we have been aggrieved. That is the role of the media and the way that they constructed Israel as an interminable victim.

So nothing happened in 1982, obviously, but since then, it’s compounded by the fact that since 1948, Israeli military operations have actually targeted Palestinian archives. In Ben Gurion’s role as a defense minister, he ordered the confiscation of Palestinian photo albums, of diaries, of personal effects that then get placed in a military archive, that’s not only off limits, obviously to the Palestinians from whom they’ve been taken away from, but that become off limits because now it’s sensitive information that you need clearance to get it by the UN. This happens during every attack and in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon, one of the primary targets was the PLO Research Center, where the Israeli military ransacked the research center, chased down the Palestinian archivists, and then blew the building up. This is the work of Hana Sleiman, who tells us about that. She’s a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon from Ain al-Hilweh, and shows us this research. What is a people without an archive? We don’t have a history. This was very intentional.

The history that has been written has initially been written by Israelis, who did get access to these archives, that remain off limits to Palestinians. So now, we believe Israelis who talk about us, and tell us that there was a Nakba, that there was massacre, that there was sexual assault, and that there was toxic chemicals being used. This group, like Ilan Pappé, and Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim, that’s known as the new Israeli historians, frankly, further diminished Palestinians as trustworthy interlocutors.

We have not been able to share our own story without having some Israeli saying, ‘Yeah, that’s right,’ for anybody to believe us. That’s compounded by the media, by narrative, by these structural considerations where we don’t even have access, by racialization of not believing the natives—all these things that have diminished as these trustworthy spokespeople, storytellers, historians, advocates. My work for the past two plus decades, has been very committed to chipping away at that narrative and making space.

For example, I love the space Mohammed el-Kurd, who’s a dear friend of mine, has been able to take up and what he’s been able to do. Mohammed is able to do that precisely because of the work that those before him have been able to chip away at. We have been able to take up space precisely because of our elders who have been able to lay the groundwork. Mohammed is also now laying the groundwork, and is creating more space so that others are able to take up that space too.

For so long, our interlocutors basically spoke of homeland and our people and self determination, so by the time I come on and try to do the work, I have a very logical approach. I’m a teacher and I’m trained as an attorney, so I want to compel you with facts and I’m going to give you enough facts for you to make your own decision. When I leave you with that, and I empower you to make your own decision, you become part of this process. I’m not just telling you, but I’m involving you in that process. I stay very logical, very factored in, as opposed to, this beautiful turn that we’ve seen, where Mohammed and others, Mariam Barghouti, and Danya AlHawari… so many amazing spokespeople that do this amazing work and put themselves on the line, don’t restrict themselves to that. They’re being really blunt with audiences. I think of one time specifically, when Mariam was asked by one commentator, ‘do you think that you can sit down with the settler and break bread?’ and Mariam just looks at the screen and says, ‘You mean, the settler that’s shooting at me with the army right behind them?’

I think we see the steady progression in creating space and how that space is like an iterative process. As we took that space up, it definitely made a sea of change in 2021. That was the first time for example, where I wasn’t just invited to debate, or to be this biased spokesperson on behalf of Palestinians, I was asked to be an expert. I was treated like a scholar as I should be. Tell us about the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Tell us about al Nakba. Tell us. I have described that as breaking the dam, and I think that it was.

Céline: This is perfect since you’re already beginning to answer my next question about how the international narrative and perception around Palestine has changed in recent years. You started to say it by discussing the sea of change in 2021…

Noura: I think that when we broke the dam in 2021, there were a lot of things happening. It was an accumulation of things that were going on, including the fact that the Trump administration actually did a lot to consolidate the progressive movement, and to make it clear that Palestine was part of a progressive agenda. Black-Palestinian solidarity was remarkable in shepherding and illuminating what should have been obvious: the racial dimensions of Palestinian oppression, as well as the colonial dimensions of Black oppression.

These things were really helpful, and, of course, Black uprising in summer 2020, primed American audiences to understand something known as structural violence and structural racism. For so many Americans, who are crafted into hyper individualism, have this attitude like, “If I didn’t do it, if my parents didn’t do it, then I don’t owe anybody anything,” or “Why should I have to pay taxes for somebody else when they should get jobs?” It’s a hyper individualistic approach, which furthers capitalism more than anything. One of the things that Black uprisings did was shatter and challenge that. It could say, everybody could have a good heart, everybody could really be “colorblind”, but racism still exists and it’s cooked into our financial system and our housing system and our policing system and our health system. That primed American audiences by 2021, to understand Palestine as a freedom struggle, in a way I had never experienced before.

We experienced a moment where there’s not just one Palestinian who has to speak for everybody, but there’s a number of Palestinians. It’s Diana Buttu and Yousef Munayyer, and Yara and Mariam and Mohammed and Jalal. It’s Jihad Abu Salim, It’s like, ‘Wow, there’s more than one!’ And not only is there more than one but we’re all oddly saying very similar things, even though we’re not centrally organized which says something about our movement.

We also see a significant backlash which we’re still going through— the onset of which is specifically in response to the headway that we made. The encapsulation of it is the narrative that antisemitism is on the rise, and for example, if Zionist hecklers came to a Palestinian freedom rally and there was an altercation, it got described as a hate crime and an antisemitic attack, even though these were Zionists, that were coming to a Palestinian freedom rally to say that we deserve to be murdered, and pummeled and eliminated, gets removed. The way that the ADL and other organizations start to bean count antisemitism is a very apolitical, perverse way in order to create a moment of hysteria. And we’re still in it, including that whole movement to adopt the IRA definition or the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, where six of the seven indicators of antisemitism have to do with a critique of Israel.

So now, my mere existence, to say I exist, and I believe in Palestinian freedom, makes me an antisemite, according to this definition. Yet, as ludicrous as that sounds, so much of our energy, since 2021, has been just to defend ourselves against this smear campaign in many different forms: at the state level, at the city level, at the university level, and the professional association level. I define it as a backlash and I see it as an indication of weakness of our adversary, because their hegemony has crumbled. Now they have resorted to these very didactic coercive forms of repression, where they can’t win in the ways that they used to in the past.

Céline: So, what can international allies do for Palestine today? That’s a question we get a lot on all the posts that we share regarding the Palestinian struggle. We draw a line between the water injustice in Palestine and the water injustice in Oahu, and a lot of times people say, “Well, what can I do?”

Noura: Here’s the thing—there is no single program into which international allies can throw themselves into. What I like to say is you have to decide what the greatest way to enact your agency is. If you’re a student, your greatest agency might be the impact that you have on your university administration, in which case a divestment campaign would be quite appropriate. If you’re a worshiper at a church or whatnot, again you want to think of what you can do within the institution that you exist in… also divestment there is really important. If you’re somebody in the community, it might not be anything in particular, so you might want to participate in a boycott campaign. So here, boycott, divestment, and sanctions, but crafted into wherever you are in your life.

As a faculty member, it’s an academic boycott. If you’re part of the municipal organizing, then the work might be to get the City Council to pass a resolution condemning Zionism or affirming Palestinian freedom, or establishing a sister city relationship between your city and a Palestinian city. If you’re an artist, how do you incorporate Palestine as part of your vision? Or perhaps you just don’t cross a picket line!

The politics of solidarity run quite deep, depending on your capacity, your agency and the level of commitment that you want to express. So it could be at the bare minimum, where you decide, ‘I will do no harm’, and you act principally. At the most, where you throw yourself actively into it, you’re joining an organization that exists that is trying to organize power. In New York, it’s “Within our Lifetime”, in San Francisco, it’s the Arab Resource Organizing Center, in Durham, it’s “Jewish Voice for Peace.”

So the idea of “What can we do?, well, it depends— where are you? Who are you? And what is your capacity? And then the sky’s the limit of how it is that you are going to manifest your agency and solidarity.