A Palestinian memoir tells the other side of Israel’s independence

Fida Jiryis’s family portrait is also the story of the Palestinian people’s history and their struggle for emancipation.

“I experienced my first Israeli Independence Day. Israelis were out flag-waving and having parties and barbeques on what was Palestinian land.”

This is one book that I wish never had to be written. However, given the manner in which the state of Israel was established, this recently released volume is an indispensable contribution to understanding where, why, and how Israel has reached where it has, 75 years later.

As yet another generation of Jews in Israel and around the world celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, the blinkers of the foundational sins of the state’s establishment are slowly coming off. This book provides a single-volume read for all those with the courage to dig deep into Israel’s founding and its fallout for the people that were (and continue) living in the country, the Palestinians.

The author, Fida Jiryis, was born to Palestinian parents from Fassouta, a Christian village in the Upper Galilee, near the Lebanese border of what today is Israel. She was born in exile in Lebanon. As a child, she lived through the horrors of the 1982 Lebanon War and then relocated with her family to Cyprus.

She is one of a handful of Palestinians who actualised her right to return home, only to find that home was no longer home. She ended up studying in Scotland, living in Canada, and ultimately returning to Palestine: to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

Jiryis guides us through her journey. First, though, she provides crucial context – including an account of her family’s traumas in the aftermath of the creation of Israel by force and of their choice to stay on in Palestine rather than flee.

Jiryis eloquently guides us through her journey over the decades. First, though, she provides crucial context – including an account of her family’s trials, and traumas, in the aftermath of the creation of Israel by force and of their choice to stay on in Palestine rather than flee.

Her family’s story is the story of the entire Palestinian people.

This book is a family memoir intertwined with Palestinian history and the Palestinian struggle for emancipation, in Israel as well as in the occupied Palestinian territory. The story of this one family illuminates the human dimensions of the Palestinian’s historic plight, by turns experiencing dispossession, living under military rule, resisting, emigrating, struggling, dealing with loss and with dispersion, and ultimately returning home.

A rare glimpse

Everyone interested in the Middle East knows that 1948 was a pivotal year, yet only infrequently encounters an authentic insider account of how Palestinians who stayed in Israel thereafter dealt with their newly imposed Israeli citizenship.

Few observers are aware of the breadth of the legitimate and nonviolent attempts by Palestinian citizens of Israel to challenge their inferior status under Israel’s political system, openly and directly, with little success, until resort to violence began to seem the only option not yet tried.

In her account of this evolution, Jiryis describes what she encountered when she entered the landscape of this complex reality: “Our identity was a warped mutation between Palestinian and Israeli; we were a minority struggling to survive, while trying to hold on to its own fabric.”

Fida Jiryis with her father, Sabri, in Fassouta, 2017 (Courtesy Fida Jiryis)

As it happens, the author’s father, the renowned activist Sabri Jiryis, was at the forefront of this challenge and his story is a pillar of the family memoir. Although one of the first Palestinian political activists inside Israel, a PLO operative for decades, and a trusted confidant of Yasser Arafat, Sabri Jiryis remains true to this day to his core as an Israeli-licenced attorney, a researcher and an independent political thinker.

As a central character in this book, he is by no means the only compelling figure. Jiryis’s late mother was no less impressive, as is her paternal uncle — also now back in Fassouta — whose story as an armed resister to Israel’s creation takes the reader into the turbulent, but rarely portrayed, dynamics of Palestinian resistance.

A people fragmented, by design

Jiryis is a riveting storyteller. Every chapter gives the backstory for some historical moment, but not as a far-removed, superficial, third-hand account. She introduces the reader to the people who lived the story, to see them living it and hear them processing it. This quality of vivid encounter distinguishes this account from so many other volumes in the literature about Palestine and Palestinians.

The author’s unique, multilayered vantage point is a product of her having lived during different periods in distinctly different fragments of Palestinian existence — as an exile, and in the Palestinian diaspora, as a Palestinian citizen inside Israel, and also in Occupied Palestine. The book evokes the flavour of each modality, each moment, wedding the historical facts to the writer’s own impassioned feelings and unfettered impressions.

Certain moments in these pages will prove indelible. Consider Jiryis’s search for an apartment in Israel with her then-husband. Inquiring of Israelis about available apartments, she recounts, “… they told us openly that they did not rent to Arabs. There was no apology and it was said unabashedly, like a simple fact.”

A stone building near the beach in Nahariya, she recalls, “We were stunned to see a hand-written notice: ‘No dogs, no Arabs’.” One frayed cardboard sign provided a succinct view of the legacy of Israeli racism and its reality as evident today.

There are many firsts in this book. The first in the family to attend university, the first Arab in Israel to enrol at the Hebrew University Law School, the first figure to mount a public challenge to the democratic character of the newly-born State of Israel.

A people’s story through one family

This book is not for the timid. Those who pick it up to start reading should be prepared to have a hard time setting it down.

I would urge readers not to skip the introduction, which offers a concise overview of 100 years of history and provides invaluable context for understanding the rest of the book. It is very reader-friendly – starting with a helpful map of Palestine/Israel and the surrounding region, a family tree, and a glossary of common terms, and finishing with extensive and well-documented end notes to guide anyone ready for a deeper dive into any of the relevant historical narratives.

There are many firsts in this book. The first in the family to attend university, the first Arab in Israel to enrol at the Hebrew University Law School, the first figure to mount a public challenge to the democratic character of the newly-born State of Israel, and one of the first Palestinians to actualise their right to return home.

Readers will also be infuriated to realise that most aspects of the dispossession, oppression, and daily battering of the Palestinian people recounted in these pages are still ongoing, right now, today.

This book would more accurately be termed a handbook on the human tragedy that overcame the Palestinian people when Israel was created by force, and a guide to the Palestinian response and how that and why that evolved as it did.

Jewish communities in Israel and around the world are another crucial audience for this book. Most will find it a difficult read, especially Jewish readers still trapped within a very deep communal indoctrination that Israel was and remains “a light unto the nations”. Their understanding of themselves will be shattered; their comfortable stereotypes about Palestinians demolished.

In closing, the author notes a simple truth: “On whatever side of the Separation Wall we lived, we paid the price, every day, for not being Jewish. All of us have a duty […] to reject the notion that someone’s identity is a justification for dehumanising them.

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Photo: Fida Jiryis (Gil Eliyahu)

Stranger in My Own Land: Palestine, Israel and One Family’s Story of Home, By Fida Jiryis, 392 pp., Hurst (2022), $29.95