This Is My Story

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17 mins read

A Palestinian American Christian Woman

Author Dr. Nahida Hablay Gordon
Author Dr. Nahida Halaby Gordon

I was born, the youngest of four children, into a Presbyterian (Church of Scotland) family in Jerusalem, Palestine, in 1939. My birth year marked the end of the first uprising of Palestinians against their British occupiers, who were encouraging mass immigration of European Jews into Palestine against the wishes of the indigenous population. The uprising, which began in 1936, was ended in 1939 with the British brutal suppression and the execution or exile of the uprising’s leadership [1]. It is estimated that “violence left 5,000 Palestinians dead, 15,000 wounded, and 5,600 incarcerated”. [2] The uprising was against the British form of occupation [3] and the mass immigration of Jews into Palestine.

This mass immigration was encouraged and facilitated by the British Balfour declaration [4], which favored the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine even though the population of Palestine was over 92% Palestinian Christian and Muslim at the time of the declaration. [5] Moreover, the Balfour Declaration went against promises the British had made to the Arabs for their eventual freedom in return for fighting with the British against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. [6] And finally, in issuing the Balfour Declaration, Great Britain violated its responsibilities as a mandatory power.

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I grant that it is my ethnicity as a Palestinian Arab, which elicits discomfort when I tell my personal story. But it is also my gender which makes it easier for others to discount that story.
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Great Britain, as the Mandatory power over Palestine, had responsibilities under Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations to foster “the well-being and development of such peoples [the Palestinians]” [7] for eventual freedom and self-determination.

Israeli Soldier in the streets of Hebron Photo Credit: Sarah Lynn Gengler
Israeli Soldier in the streets of Hebron
Photo Credit: Sarah Lynn Gengler

Throughout this time, my parents tried to make our lives as normal as possible. I have happy memories of friends, school, and cousins. At least once a month, my parents took us to Jerusalem to visit with my maternal grandmother and her children and grandchildren. My grandmother would have the most wonderful meals with all of us arranged around a long table. We formed close ties with all the cousins, which lasted in spite of exile and in spite of thousands of miles of separation.

As a child growing up in Palestine, I never had the experience of walking alone to school, even though it was a short two blocks from home. We were always escorted by an adult or taken by car. It was not an uncommon occurrence for the Yishuv (the precursor of the Israeli military) to pepper our street with live fire. Carefree playing outside our home was not a possibility. My parents, however, provided us with opportunities to have carefree and wonderful times by spending our summers either in Ramallah or in resort areas in Lebanon. This allowed us to escape the heat of the coast and gave us children the space and freedom to run outdoors in safety for the whole summer.

In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to recommend partition [8] of Palestine into two states, against the wishes of the Palestinians. The suggested partition gave the Jewish population, (the minority, comprising by then about one third of the population), 56 percent of the land leaving 43 percent to Palestinians. Jerusalem and Bethlehem were to become an international zone [9]. Forty-five percent of the population living in the proposed Jewish sector would be comprised of Muslims and Christians, and 1% of the new Palestinian sector was to be comprised of Jews. Before this recommended partition, at the end of 1946, Jews – most of whom were immigrants from Europe – had acquired by purchase only 6-to-8 percent of the total land area of Palestine. The Palestinians objected to the partition plan, for in the short span of three decades, we had already seen the ethnic composition of Palestine change dramatically due to the British facilitation of immigration of Jews into Palestine.

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As a child growing up in Palestine, I never had the experience of walking alone to school, even though it was a short two blocks from home. We were always escorted by an adult or taken by car.
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As soon as partition was announced, the Yishuv (Israeli proto-state) leaders were not happy with the large proportion of Palestinians in what was to become Israel, so they implemented a plan to expel the Palestinians. The battle for Jaffa (where my family was living) began in late 1947 and was only a part of the plan of expulsion over all of Palestine. Most historians [10] now agree that the expulsion of the Palestinians occurred against their free will. One of the Israeli “new historians,” Ilan Pappe [11], applies the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ to characterize what happened to the Palestinians.

Jerusalem today Photo Credit: Sarah Lynn Gengler
Jerusalem today
Photo Credit: Sarah Lynn Gengler

My memories of those days of expulsion are full of fearful sounds: explosions, bombs, and gunfire. In Jaffa, houses were randomly selected and then dynamited, with their inhabitants still inside. [12] My father was wounded by a terrorist operation in Clock Tower Square in Jaffa. The terrorist operation was carried out against the New Seray, which housed Jaffa’s municipal offices, welfare workers, and a kitchen for needy children. [13] The image I have of my father arriving home with blood all over his head and clothes remains with me to this day.

From January to May of 1948, there was intermittent and indiscriminate bombardment of Palestinian civilian areas of Jaffa, including our neighborhood. During one occasion of night bombardment, the bombs fell across the street from our house and hit the St. Simon Church. This bombing and the worsening security situation for Palestinian civilians convinced my father that he should take our family to our summer vacation in Lebanon earlier than usual. On April 22, we hurriedly packed a few suitcases and drove out of Jaffa. On the way, I remember seeing houses burning. All was left behind – our pets, a dog and cat, all family pictures – all mementos of a life – all gone!

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The image I have of my father arriving home with blood all over his head and clothes remains with me to this day.
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Graffiti on Palestinian Side of the Wall Photo Credit: Bryce Wilson
Graffiti on Palestinian Side of the Wall
Photo Credit: Bryce Wilson

My father’s plan was that we would return once school started again in September; however the Israeli government would not allow us to return. Some people managed to return to Palestine, but many were shot by the Israeli military or otherwise forcibly prevented if they attempted to return.

As a pre-teen in late 1947 and early 1948, I watched my country and community collapse around me. We lost all – our home, belongings, community, and friends. Since then I have watched and listened to the news media to see when things would be made right again, when I could return to my home.

Alas, 66 years later I am still waiting. Daily, I see Israel taking more and more Palestinian lands for settlements, which are illegal under international law. Moreover, I continuously learn of the actions and practices of the government of Israel against the Palestinian people, both Christians and Muslims. I hear about Israel’s expropriation and degradation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and its blockade and aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip. These constitute (as defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court) [14] elements of crimes against humanity. [15]

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In speaking and writing about my personal experiences as a victim of the creation of Israel, my voice has been ignored or at times characterized as a “red flag”.
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Palestinian woman and child at the YWCA in Jericho Photo Credit: Ray Roberts
Palestinian woman and child at the YWCA in Jericho
Photo Credit: Ray Roberts

Now, in 2014, I am married, a grandmother, and Professor Emerita of mathematics/statistics. I’ve had an academic career during which I published, in cooperation with colleagues, findings from a variety of research projects in major scientific journals. When publishing solo, I learned that using my initials along with my married family name – Gordon – would give my submitted manuscript a better chance of acceptance for publication than if I spelled out my first name, which indicated to the editors and reviewers that I was a woman and a person from the Middle East – an Arab.

In speaking and writing about my personal experiences as a victim of the creation of Israel, my voice, which is counter to that of the prevailing understanding held by many Presbyterians and many Americans, has been ignored or at times characterized as a “red flag”. However, I am heartened to see that there are a significant and growing number of Presbyterians who are speaking out on behalf of justice for Palestinians.

I grant that it is my ethnicity as a Palestinian Arab, which elicits discomfort when I tell my personal story. But it is also my gender which makes it easier for others to discount that story. My perception, however, is that it is easier and safer for me to speak out because I am a Christian Palestinian woman than it would be if I were a Muslim Palestinian man!

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[1] Levenberg, Haim. Military Preparations of the Arab Community in Palestine: 1945–1948. London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 74–76.
[2] Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal, Palestinians: The Making of a People (New York: Free Press, 1993), p. 123 cited in Palestinian Uprisings Compared. by Jonathan Schanzer?Middle East Quarterly?Summer 2002, pp. 27-37..
[3] Khalidi, Rashid. The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), p 35.
[4] Letter dated November 2, 1917, from Arthur James Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, addressed to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in Britain, which became known as the Balfour Declaration, accessed December 1, 2009 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/middle_east/israel_and_the_palestinians/key_documents/1682961.stm.
[5] Justin McCarthy. The Population of Palestine, 1990 Population Statistics. Retrieved December 1, 2009 from http://israelipalestinian.procon.org/viewresource.asp?resourceID=000636.
[6] Readers may be familiar with the role of T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) in assisting Arab forces in fighting the Ottoman Empire; recent scholarship suggests that Lawrence was himself ignorant of British plans to forget their promises to the Arabs after the Ottomans were defeated. See Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, (NY: Random House, 2014).
[7] The Covenant of the League of Nations can be accessed at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/leagcov.asp.
[8] The partition document, Resolutions 181, can be accessed at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/res181.asp.
[9] Ibid.
[10] There are many sources. Here are some:
-Palestine, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Accessed December 2, 2009 at http://www.merip.org/palestine-israel_primer/un-partition-plan-pal-isr.html.
-Esber, Rosemarie M. Under the Cover of War: The Zionist Expulsion of the Palestinians. Arabicus Books & Media. 2008.
-Khalidi, Rashid. The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Beacon Press, Boston. 2006
-Masalha, Nur. A Land without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians 1949-96. Faber and Faber. 1997.
-Quigley, John. Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1990, pp 82-86.
-Pappe, Ilan. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld, Oxford. 2006, p 287.
[11] Pappe, Ilan. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld, Oxford. 2006, p 287.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Adam LeBor, The City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa. W. W.Norton & Co
[14] Of course, partly for this reason, the US and Israel are among the few nations which are not full signatories to the ICC.
[15] Certainly there is no military justification for the vastly disproportionate death tolls in the Gaza campaigns: the recent war seems partly prompted by Israel’s desire to prevent Hamas and Fatah from working together, as the actual threats from rockets and tunnels (known about for years) have been statistically negligible. But the systematic violations of human rights by the government of Israel have been accepted by most nations of the world for many years, despite US vetoes in the United Nations that have prevented the enforcement of international law.

AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Nahida Halaby Gordon is a Palestinian American woman and a ruling elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wooster, OH. She served from 2011 to 2013 as the Moderator of the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus and current serves on the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC). She is a Professor Emerita at Case Western Reserve University.

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