When a Palestinian peace activist who spent a decade in Israeli prison decides to share his life story, asking an American Jewish ally to write his biography might seem like an unusual way to go. But Sulaiman “Souli” Khatib has devoted his adult life to promoting understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, and working with such a partner was a deliberate choice.
Khatib’s story, “In This Place Together: A Palestinian’s Journey to Collective Liberation,” is told with the help of Oakland writer-editor Penina Eilberg-Schwartz, 34. Khatib, 49, co-founded Combatants for Peace, a group of Palestinian activists and former Israeli soldiers who have joined forces to end the conflict.
Khatib first met Eilberg-Schwartz at the home of her mother, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, and they developed a friendship. When the time came to write about his life — something people he met on his speaking tours encouraged him to do — Khatib envisioned reaching an American Jewish audience and saw Eilberg-Schwartz as the ideal person to help him get there, “because I felt comfortable with her and trusted her,” he said in a video interview from his home in Ramallah.
While she also valued their friendship, she said her first instinct was to say no, concerned about becoming “another American Jew occupying Palestinian space.” But then she began to think about the upsides. “I had seen how Souli’s way of communicating could really speak to people who are not usually listening to Palestinian stories,” Eilberg-Schwartz said in the same interview. He has a gift for making people feel comfortable with him while also pushing them to challenge their beliefs, she said.
“That’s not only the kind of changemaking tool we need, but I realized I could help to amplify it, and that my politics could present it in a way that could serve that work,” said Eilberg-Schwartz, referring to her involvement with the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow.
The trust between Khatib and Eilberg-Schwartz allowed him to open up in a new way about enduring prison and torture, he said. (The two decided to scale back on the descriptions in part because it was difficult for him to talk about, and to avoid alienating certain Jewish readers who might question the veracity of his story.) Khatib explained that processing trauma is not part of his culture, and that throughout his life his impulse has been to joke about it or not deal with it at all — but it was essential that he do so for the book.
Khatib grew up in Hizma, near Jerusalem on the West Bank. He lived under Israeli occupation, and as a boy was involved in illegal activities, until he and a friend stabbed two Israeli soldiers while attempting to seize their weapons. At age 14, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
During his time behind bars, he recalls in the book, he took part in hunger strikes for better conditions. Later in his prison term, Khatib worked as a librarian and started studying Hebrew, Jewish history and the Holocaust, initially wanting to learn more about the people he viewed as oppressors.
But as Khatib went on to consume the works of Gandhi, Mandela and King, Eilberg-Schwartz relates a gradual change in his mindset: “Certain foundations felt shaken. Maybe the Israelis were a little right, maybe they did need a place. Maybe Zionism wasn’t colonialism out of nowhere.”
“To hold multiple narratives is not easy,” Khatib says. “It’s not easy to carry contradictions in your soul. It’s much easier to see one side of the story, to blame the other, to live in victimhood. To feel that all the world is against you, that everyone wants to kill you.”
Over time, Khatib came to believe in nonviolence as the only way to resolve the conflict. By the time he was released after more than 10 years, Khatib was 25 years old and fully committed to his cause. Slowly, he got involved in reconciliation work.
In 2004, he was invited on a trip to Antarctica with a delegation of Israelis and Palestinians. The next year, he and a group of Palestinians, all of whom had done time in Israeli prisons, formed Combatants for Peace with former Israeli soldiers who refused to do reserve duty in the West Bank and Gaza. Khatib is still with the group today. (He just stepped down as Palestinian director but still holds a leadership position.)
That year, 2005, was also when he came to Camp Tawonga’s Peacemakers Camp for the first of several visits. Held at the summer camp near Yosemite, the peace program was co-founded by the late Len Traubman and his wife, Libby, San Mateo residents who also helped found the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group.
The Bay Area was an important place for Khatib on his journey. “I think of [the Bay Area] as a place that helps soften the people coming from outside, the attitude and friendly people,” Khatib said in the interview. “Especially at Camp Tawonga — I’m still really good friends with a lot of the people I met there.”
Eilberg-Schwartz said she hopes that her fellow Jews who are concerned with social justice, but who don’t see anti-occupation work as part of that effort, will give the book and its premise a chance. She and Khatib would love for “In This Place Together” (Beacon Press) to be translated into Hebrew and Arabic so it could reach a much wider audience.
“I love our community and really want more of us to be on board for the struggle for Palestinian liberation,” Eilberg-Schwartz said, “both because I think it’s strategic, and it matters to my heart. It matters to me as a Jew who loves my community, and as someone who wants us to be on the right side of history.”