The smiles were pinched, the welcome tepid, but the folks at the media table waved me on through. I was now an official attendee of the 4th annual international convention of Al-Awda, held last weekend at S.F. State.
For those whose Arabic is a bit rusty, Al-Awda means “The Return,” shorthand for the Palestinian movement’s self-proclaimed “right of return,” which would allow Palestinian Arabs and their descendents to go back to their original pre-1948 homes throughout Israel.
Or, as we Jews call it, the end of the Jewish state.
I was there to cover the opening night festivities, which included a chicken, hummus and pita dinner, dancing girls, an oud player and all the “Zionism = Racism” bumper stickers you could carry.
There’s no way to convey how uncomfortable I felt sitting there. This was a conclave of hate come to Jack Adams Hall.
For starters, Al-Awda literature refers to Israel as “Israel” (apparently without the quotation marks, the word would confer too much legitimacy on the Zionist entity). Though no one there openly espoused a straightforward anti-Jewish message, for me this was like being at a little Nuremberg rally. All that was missing were the bonfires and Leni Riefenstahl with her camera.
The attendees seemed to come from various walks of life. Some Arab-American, some SFSU students, some classic Bay Area lefties. But for all the smiles and glad-handing, these folks were united in cheering on the Hezbollah rockets and making sure Israel ends up in the dustbin of history.
My first thought after sitting down at a rear table: For an international convention, this was a pretty pathetic turnout. I saw no more than 100 people in the hall, and several of them were organizers, security guards and journalists. “Is this the best they can do?,” I wondered.
Several speakers came to the podium, including two from GUPS (General Union of Palestinian Students). Their remarks were of the strident, closed-fist Black Panther variety. But one of the speakers made me chuckle with his comment that the Palestinian people face an “existential threat” from Israel. How nice of him to appropriate language that far more accurately describes what Israel faces from its enemies.
I was somewhat less repulsed by University of Michigan professor Rabab Abdulhadi. She took a more scholarly approach, mildly chiding the audience for believing Palestinians were the only people ever “colonized” (she cited as examples the Haitians, the Native Americans and the good people of New Orleans).
She even pointed out that there were Israelis and Jews who say “You cannot do this [oppress Palestinians] in my name.” But she was quick to add that the one thing everyone in the room agreed on was the total liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea. “Otherwise,” she said, “I wouldn’t be here.”
Finally, Salman Abu Sitta, a Palestinian demographer, spoke. Courtly, elegant of manner and dress, Abu Sitta looked every bit a man of sense and reason. Until he opened his mouth.
“21,412 days,” he intoned, tallying the number of days since the Naqba, Arabic for “The Catastrophe” (which is what they call the 1948 creation of Israel). “And every day is a naqba recreated.”
Near the end of the sickening speeches, the oddest thing happened to me during my dinner with Al-Awda. Despite the hateful rhetoric (there’s no other way to spin their talk of destroying Zionism), despite their clinging to the impossible dream of return, I found myself unable to hate them back, even though I wanted to. All I had to do was look around.
The kids at the table next to me were cute, their hijab-clad mothers loving and attentive. The Arab dancing was wonderful, the food delicious and the oud music haunting. Even the opening slide show, depicting the Holy Land in all its Arab splendor, charmed me.
Yes, I will always reject the message of Al-Awda. I will never concede a single point when it comes to Israel’s moral superiority and Al-Awda’s rat’s nest of lies. But these were still human beings. They clearly felt a deep pain and believed this was their only way of addressing it.
I ate my bread all alone in the back. But somehow, I wished we could have broken bread together.
Dan Pine</b can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.