A People’s Historian: Ramzy Baroud on Journalism and History and Why ‘Palestinians Already Have a Voice’
by Romana Rubeo
June 6, 2017
Palestinian-American historian, journalist and author, Dr. Ramzy Baroud speaks on his upcoming book, just-released digital media project, Palestine in Motion and why Palestinian history has to be urgently retold. When it comes to Palestine, we often see a dichotomy between mainstream media platforms - essentially molded out of a Zionist narrative - and a counter-narrative, produced by a young generation of highly educated Palestinians trying to reach new audiences, tear down limits imposed by the dominant rhetoric and take center stage.
This generation of intellectuals tries to define its role in the aftermath of the Oslo fiasco, now that it has become clear that the US-sponsored ‘Peace Process’ as the sole criterion of conflict resolution is dead and gone.
The Internet has created favorable conditions to spread this counter-narrative on a journalistic level, but there is still much work to be done, especially on a deeper level.
Palestinian intellectuals cannot confine themselves to reporting mere facts, because the Israeli narrative is based on a cruel but very elementary concept: rewriting history in order to completely erase Palestinians.
Is it possible to act on two fronts? Can we combine the journalistic experience and the historian’s analysis? What should be done in order to neutralize the Israeli propaganda and its attempts to cancel the Palestinian point of view and even the very existence of a Palestinian people?
We asked these questions to Dr. Ramzy Baroud, writer, the author of three books and a contributor to many more. As a journalist and a columnist, he has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He has a Doctorate of Philosophy in Palestine Studies from the European Centre for Palestinian Studies at the University of Exeter and his approach - at times, is that of a historian.
There has always been a clear distinction between historians and journalists; the former tend to consider the big picture, while journalists tend to report from what we could call an “annalistic approach”.
How do you combine these two perspectives?
In the case of Palestine, as in other national struggles that are rooted in the past, history is at the heart of the story.
Many people tend to have short-term memory when the rights of the Palestinians are in question. This feeds quite well into the Zionist narrative, which has aimed to displace Palestinian history altogether, and replace it with something entirely different, albeit a construct; a falsified history.
The latter is not my own conclusion, but a fact, reported, although timidly, in Israeli media (almost never in US mainstream media). Although files relating to the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 are still hidden in Israeli archives (they should have been de-classified a long time ago), one document, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, has escaped the keen eye of the Israeli censor: file number GL-18/17028.
This file shows the process of how Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, resorted to Zionist historians in the early 1950s to forge an alternative story as to how Palestinian refugees were expelled. He chose the most convincing one, and that became ‘history’. In other words, he rewrote history.
This rewriting of history is ongoing and has tainted the present, as well.
The Israeli narrative has aimed to create a pseudo reality from the very beginning. This alternative reality continues to define every aspect of the so-called ‘conflict’ in Palestine. Thanks to the willingness of western mainstream media, Israel has managed to paint itself as a victim, not an aggressor, and a besieged nation, not a colonial military occupier.
How can journalists, then, unearth the seemingly complex truth, without understanding history – not the version conveniently fashioned by Israel, but the history of pain, suffering and the ongoing struggle of the Palestinians?
To report on Palestine and Israel, without fully fathoming the historical roots of the conflict, is to merely be content with providing a superficial account of what ‘both sides’ are saying, which often favors the Israeli side and demonizes the Palestinians.
The fact is that it is such shallow reporting that makes the arguably most reported story in the world, the least understood.
You said: “History is at the heart of the story”. Indeed, this approach is very clear in your previous books. For example, in “My father was a freedom fighter”, the history of Palestine is not seen through the lens of “powerful men” who shaped events from above, but through the lens of true people, who influenced the course of history from below, through their principles, their aspirations, their struggle to survive.
Is the new book a further step in this direction?
Yes. My new book is a continuation of my journey in both journalism and academia. Entitled: ‘The Last Earth: A People’s Story of Palestine’, my forthcoming book is an attempt to reanimate a collective Palestinian narrative, through narrating the stories of ordinary Palestinians, who lead extraordinary lives. Through reading and intersecting their narratives, one becomes familiar with a new and important aspect of Palestinian history.
In my approach to history, I attempt to demolish the academically defunct, but still applied ‘Great Man Theory’, and other historical methodologies that do not place the people at the heart of the discourse.
When it comes to Palestine and the Middle East, this historical approach seems totally new. Noam Chomsky referred to your upcoming book “the finest tradition of people’s history”.
Do you think this new approach can contribute to the necessary change of narrative about Palestine and the Middle East? And also, to give new important, sources to future historians?
Sadly, orientalist history still defines the way that history is written in the Middle East and about the Middle East. I reject that, not only as a matter of principle, but also because it is both impractical and false.
For example, the Palestinian people, although oppressed, occupied and marginalized have been active participants in shaping their own destiny. They have resisted Zionist colonialism for a century, organized and struggled, using every available platform and against numerous odds. Generation after generation, they have paid a heavy price. But they have behaved in what seems like a predictable pattern in which resistance remains the most constant characteristic in their collective identity.
Without Palestinian resistance, there would be no ‘conflict’ of which to speak. Israel would have perfectly subjugated Palestinians, and the story would have ended a long time ago. It has not. Its continuity can hardly be attributed to the lack of Israeli will to suppress Palestinians or to the savvy and strength of the Palestinian leadership: the former has been remorsefully oppressive, and the latter, notoriously quisling.
Thus, the only factor remaining is the people. This is why I believe Palestinian history has to be entirely reoriented to document their story. Hence, I have dedicated most of my work to tell their story.
Historian Eric Walberg calls you “one of the best emissaries of Palestinians, a people without a voice.” Do you think this definition can describe the role of Palestinian intellectuals?
And do you think these works can be a contribution to give a voice to Palestinians?
Arundhati Roy is quoted as saying, “There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
I believe that Palestinians already have a voice, and an articulate one. But that voice has been deliberately muted through a massive campaign of misinformation, distortion and misrepresentation by Israel, and many in western media - some willingly, and others unwittingly.
I think the distinction is absolutely essential, because understanding it fully defines our roles as historians and intellectuals. I have chosen ‘people’s history’ and ‘history from below’ as the platforms to communicate Palestinian history, because the collective voice is already there; it just needs to be freed from the numerous attempts to bury it.
When Israel and its allies say ‘Palestinians are not a people’, they essentially say Palestinians have no identity, no legitimate demands, thus deserve no voice.
Our answer should not be to purport to speak on behalf of the Palestinian people, but to actually listen to them; truly listen to them and empower their voices so that they articulate their own aspirations and rightful demands, and express their own identity.
We described you as a writer, a journalist, and a historian. Do you think you can render this approach to all your fields of expertise?
In essence, yes, although it is not easy. I am a trained journalist, both academically and in the field. I have launched several successful media ventures in Europe, Asia and the Middle East and operated my own media outlet for nearly 17 years. I have also trained many journalists and have contributed to many newspapers around the world.
But history for me is more of a passion. In fact, I do not think that a true intellectual can operate outside the realm of history. To acquire knowledge of yourself, of your society and to impart it to others requires that you have a deep, solid understanding of history.
This is especially so for Palestine. Every facet of today’s ‘conflict’, every term in the dominant discourse, Zionist or Palestinian, every reference made in the news to the ‘conflict’ are all rooted in history, and can only be truly understood if we take on the intricate task of deconstructing the past.
That is what I have tried to do throughout the years. If I am to discuss the boycott movement (BDS) in Palestine, I must speak of the 1936 strike and the first mass movement of civil disobedience. If I am to understand today’s resistance, I have to place it into a most captivating history of generational resistance. And every step of the way, I insist on being guided by the legacy of the people. I have learned so much more talking to ‘ordinary people’ conveying their personal history than I have learned from disengaged ‘historians’ constantly cross-referencing one another.
The most fascinating part of my work is when I try to find the common ground between people’s personal histories in order for me to locate the grand narrative of a people. It is an exciting, but also a never-ending process.
So, what should we be expecting from you in the near future in terms of books and journalism projects?
Aside from my new book, ‘The Last Earth: A People’s Story of Palestine’, I have just launched, together with a team of journalists at Al Jazeera English, a unique media project called ‘Palestine in Motion’.
‘Palestine in Motion’ is an attempt at retelling the Palestinian story through individual stories, connected and intersected to create one comprehensive narrative. The project has involved nearly 30 people, comprising storytellers, researchers and developers.
There are more projects still in the pipeline.
Romana Rubeo is a freelance translator based in Italy. She holds a Master’s Degree in Foreign Languages and Literature and she is specialized in Audio-Visual and Journalism Translation. An avid reader, her interests include music, politics, and geopolitics.