Obama’s America – Our Struggle: An Interview with Remi Kanazi

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An Interview with Remi Kanazi on the August 15, 2013, in New York. This interview was originally published on September 28th, 2013 in the German online daily newspaper Schattenblick. Interview by Riocard O’Tiarnaigh. 

The poet and hip hop artist Remi Kanazi was born in 1981 in the U.S.A., the son of Palestinian immigrants. He grew up in the Western part of the state of Massachusetts and was educated as practically the only Arab pupil in a Catholic school. The plane attacks of September 2001 along with the anti-Muslim hysteria, which they triggered off in the U.S.A., motivated Remi Kanazi to publish his first political commentaries. After experiencing the Broadway production of the show Def Poetry Jam in 2004 Kanazi took up for the first time the spoken word as an art form. In 2008 he published „Poets for Palestine“, a collection of writings by well-known Palestinian as well as politically involved American poets, hip-hop musicians and artists. The book contained a number of his own pieces.

Kanazi’s first collection of poems, entitled “Poetic Injustice – Writings on Resistance and Palestine“, appeared in book form (plus CD) in 2011. The legendary jazz and blues rapper Gil-Scott Heron and the Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad are among Kanazi’s most important influences. Kanazi is a member of the organising committee of the U. S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

In the course of his political activism he travels widely and as an artist has already toured the U.S.A., Great Britain, Ireland and the Middle East. The Schattenblick spoke with Remi Kanazi, who has been living for a number of years in Brooklyn, on the 15th of August in Bryant Park in the heart of Manhattan.

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Portrait photograph of Remi Kanazi – Photo: ©  2013 by Schattenblick

Schattenblick: Mr. Kanazi, could you tell us a little bit about your family’s history and how it reflects that of the Palestinians?

Remi Kanazi: In 1948 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their native country and more than 450 Palestinian villages destroyed. I’m the son and grandson of victims of this ethnic cleansing, which the Palestinians call the Nakba, which means the catastrophe. My mother’s family come from Jaffa, my father’s from Haifa. Both cities belong today to the state of Israel. My grandparents, my parents and their siblings fled along the coastal road to the Lebanon in the North. More than 30 years ago they emigrated from there to the United States. They experienced the expulsion for themselves and cannot return to their former homeland to this day.

SB: How well are you in touch with your own relatives, who must be spread across several countries, and have you yourself ever been in Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip?

RK: I’ve been to Israel and the Palestinian territories and have given lectures or appeared as a poet and hip hop artist there on a number of occasions.

SB: Do you have relations there?

RK: Thrice or four times removed, perhaps, but in reality no. All my relations are living today either in the Lebanon, in other parts of the Arab world or in the United States.

SB: Where does your interest in politics come from? The Palestinians in the Lebanon for example are still regarded as refugees, do not enjoy full civil rights, have difficulty obtaining work permits etc.

By contrast you are a fully integrated citizen of the U.S.A. And could have simply pursued a career and turned your back on the fate of the Palestinian people.

RK: The matter of my own personal identity played a role. My parents and grandparents endured historical events. For me it’s less about national affiliation or the creation of a Palestinian state and more about a serious injustice, which hasn’t been redressed to this day.

Something befell the Palestinian people, which no ethnic or religious group in the world should have done to them. No people should have to live under a regime of occupation or apartheid. No people should be expelled from their ancestral lands and have to watch, as their own homes and villages are razed to the ground. Whether it be the stop-and-frisk tactics of the New York police, the gigantic prison industry in the U.S.A., the mass expulsion of undocumented immigrants by the government of Barack Obama, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the drone-attacks of the CIA in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, what connects them all is the fight against injustice. Although it was my Palestinian background, which opened my eyes to the conflict in the Middle East, my interest in politics developed into a rejection of any form of oppression, colonialism and militarism, regardless of whether we’re talking about the robbery of native lands in North America by the Europeans or Israel’s apartheid system, under which the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and the Arab-Israeli citizens must live.

SB: As a poet and hip hop artist, would you agree with the thesis, that the artist should publicly take a stand against oppression and injustice, and that he’s copping out, if he doesn’t do this?

RK: I don’t think, that every artist automatically should have to deal with political questions in his work. I do however believe, that every person, be it doctor, engineer, bricklayer, student or whatever, should reject oppression in all its forms. I’m reminded of something, which the historian Howard Zinn once wrote: The millions of ordinary people like you and me have to take things into our own hands and ensure political progress; we can’t leave it up to the politicians and the captains of industry, as they’ll only look after their own interests, as they always do.

SB: How would you describe the situation of the Palestinian-Americans and what is their relationship to the other Arab-Americans, the Muslim community and the rest of society in the U.S.A. Like?

RK: The Palestinian community isn’t monolithic. It doesn’t speak with one voice.

SB: How many Palestinian residents or citizens with a Palestinian background are there in the U.S.A.?

RK: I don’t know exactly. There are large Palestinian communities in Chicago, Paterson in New Jersey, New Orleans and Los Angeles. In total there are several hundred thousand, but not a million. The largest Palestinian community outside of the Arab world is to be found in Chile.

SB: Do the Palestinians have strong voice within the Arab-American community?

RK: Certainly the fate of the Palestinians is a cause of concern for the Arabs in the U.S.A. Just as much as for the Arabs in the rest of the world. In the last couple of years those, who take an interest in the oppression of the Palestinians and complain about it, have been gaining ever more attention. Non-Arab, left-wing activists against racism and oppression are also involved. The solidarity movement is growing all the time. The campaign Students for Justice in Palestine already has local branches in 160 American universities.

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Trees provide Bryant Park’s visitors with shade from the sun – Photo: ©  2013 by Schattenblick

SB: Among the members there must be many people, who are active in the international Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, or not?

RK: That’s correct. Universities in the U.S.A. Are major institutional investors and manage huge assets. Part of the campaign is trying to ensure, that their investments do not benefit companies, which promote the oppression of the Palestinians. We’re talking here for example about American companies like the construction vehicle manufacturer Caterpillar, whose trucks and excavators are used for the building of the separation wall and the Jewish settlements, as well as the armaments giants Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, with whose weaponry the Israeli Defense Forces are equipped.

SB: Although the strength of the Zionist lobby in the U.S.A. Is renowned, there are also very many Jews in America, who are critical of Israel. Are the Palestinian-Americans in touch with progressive forces within the Jewish-American community? Do the two groupings ever cooperate?

RK: Without a doubt. The group Jewish Voices for Peace along has more than 100,000 members. Furthermore, there are groups such as the Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and Jews Say No, who are part of the BDS campaign and who actively decry the anti-democratic measures of the Israeli state. In the course of working together the question, whether one is a Palestinian or Israeli, Jew, Muslim, Christian or whatever, is totally irrelevant. The only thing that matters is whether one is against oppression and disenfranchisement or not. If one’s answers in the affirmative, then one will find allies from a variety of backgrounds. For example, among the loose coalition of progressive groups supporting the Palestinian cause, there is MEChA, a Chicano organisation, which has more that 400 chapters across the U.S.A. And which signed the BDS appeal back in 2005.

SB: After the attacks of September 11, 2001, on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Arlington those in the U.S.A. Of the Moslem faith and/or an Arab background were regarded with particular suspicion. Twelve years later has the distrust receded, and how at home do Arab and Muslim citizens of the U.S.A. Feel in Obama’s America?

RK: The anti-Muslim mood from back then has pretty much dissipated. I was in New York at the time of the attacks and the atmosphere here in the first days, weeks and months thereafter was pretty loaded. One would hear a lot of talk from average citizens along the lines, that the U.S.A. Should flatten the countries, where the instigators of the attacks came from. After long and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq practically nothing of this attitude remains. Nonetheless, the rise of trends like the Tea Party among the Republicans and the fact, that according to surveys around 20 percent of the citizens of the U.S.A.

Believe Obama to be a Muslim, socialist Kenyan, despite his actually being an economic neoliberal, who in terms of drone attacks and secret service surveillance is simply continuing the policies of George W. Bush, makes one think – a lot.

On the one hand groups, who employ right-wing populism, in order to curry favour particularly with white voters, are enjoying a certain resurgence; that cannot be denied. On the other hand however, the support for the Palestinians amongst blacks, latinos, womens’ rights people, students in the universities as well as those involved in environmental issues or who are fighting discrimination against homosexuals and lesbians is growing enormously. Despite the resistance of the financially potent Zionist lobby, which continues to exert considerable influence in Washington, grassroots organisations such as Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voices for Peace, the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation and local BDS groups, which support the Palestinian cause, have contributed enormously to correcting the one-sided, pro-Israeli view of the Middle East conflict among the public and in the media of the U.S.A..

In recent years it has come out, that the Israeli government pays people to engage in propaganda on behalf of Israel in the internet and in the social media. In contrast, the Palestinians don’t have to pay anybody, to criticise Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories.

People do that themselves on the basis of their own outrage. It is just as easy to recognise injustice there as it is to realise, that police brutality against women or homosexuals is wrong, and that an income, that one can live on, along with reasonable health care are basic human rights. I live in the heart of the empire. The U.S.A. Has more that one thousand military bases all around the world. They export their terror directly – e.g. Iraq – or indirectly – e.g. Syria.

There are many things on the North American continent worth fighting against, including structural racism and oppression. The progressive forces may find themselves currently in a difficult position, but the economic crisis and climate change are leading more and more people to resist capitalist forces. Therefore I’m confident, that in the long term we will be able to change things here for the better.

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The view along 42nd Street with the famous Chrysler Building in the distance – Photo: © 2013 by Schattenblick

SB: What’s your opinion about the recent resuscitation of the so-called Middle East peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Can one expect any positive outcome from the restart of bilateral negotiations, to which U.S Secretary of State John Kerry practically had to force the two sides, or is the whole thing just a ploy?

RK: Nothing good can come of it. Anyone expecting a better future for the Palestinians as a result of these peace negotiations – the very term is misplaced – hasn’t been following the developments of the last forty years closely enough. Since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 the number of illegal Jewish settlements on the Palestinian West Bank has tripled. In addition there has been the consolidation of Israeli military bases, the blockade and economic strangulation of the Gaza Strip along with the continual, illegal seizure of Palestinian land. Israel controls all access to the Palestinian Territories. Each and every person, who wants to enter or exit them, has to pass Israeli checkpoints. The same thing applies for all exports and imports. The Israeli navy keeps the Gaza Strip cut off from the Mediterranean, and its planes control the airspace over the West Bank. Israel imposes taxes on all Palestinian goods and passes the money on to the rightful owner, i. e. The Palestinian authorities, sluggishly. Israel is destroying the economy in the Palestinian Territories and has used the so-called peace process to exacerbate this policy. Independently of whether Israel is governed by the right-wing Likud or the left-wing Labour Party, the expansion of the Jewish settlements continues unabated. It would seem to be state policy.

SB: Let us assume, that the Palestinian Authority, with Mahmoud Abbas at its head, was forced into the negotiations by the international donors. What could the motive for the U.S.A. Be, to restart the talks, and what do the Israelis hope to achieve through their involvement?

RK: For the Americans it is a question of their leadership role and bringing a degree of stability to the region. This stability doesn’t rule out a certain amount of chaos, such as we have seen since the invasion of U.S. Troops in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003.

Nonetheless the U.S.A. Sees its hegemonic position challenged as much by the radical changes in Egypt and Tunisia as by the civil war in Syria. Engagement with the Middle East peace process gives it the opportunity to play the well-meaning mediator between the constantly quarreling local actors. The reanimation of the peace process has primarily symbolic character, along the lines of „Look, we’re doing something“. Positive impulses towards a peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians are not to be expected.

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has acquired a negative reputation as an uncompromising hardliner, hopes to improve his image, without having to make serious concessions to the Palestinian side. In this way he can gain room to manoeuvre in his dealings with the countries of the European Union, who recently imposed an import ban on products from the Jewish settlements and who are threatening to break off all contacts with Israeli organisations operating beyond the Green Line, in other words on the Palestinian side of the 1967 border, from 2014 onwards. Israel is facing increased criticism regarding its apartheid policies in the Occupied Territories, be it from its own left-wing peace groups, the international BDS campaign or friendly countries such as the EU member states. Through participation in the peace negotiations the Netanyahu government hopes to assuage its allies, so that their financial support will continue to flow to Israel to the full extent. In 2014 Israel expects to receive financial aid from the U.S.A. To a tune of 3.4 billion dollars. Through concessions on the diplomatic front Netanyahu can ensure that nothing changes in this regard. At the same time he has all the means at his disposal to prevent any real negotiations on the subjects of a division of Jerusalem, a withdrawal of the Jewish settlers or a return of the Palestinian refugees taking place.

SB: Just now you implied the idea of control through chaos. What effects would you expect the political instability in Egypt and the civil war in Syria to have on the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic?

RK: I find it difficult to predict, how things are going to develop in Egypt. Since the military coup at the start of July the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood has been going full blast. What one can say, however, is, that the unrest in Egypt and the fighting on the Sinai Peninsula have brought about a drastic deterioration of the situation at the border crossing at Rafah. The Egyptian military authorities are proceeding vigorously against the tunnels, through which a large part of the goods for the Gaza Strip are being smuggled. This naturally has led to increased hardship there. We will have to wait and see, to what extent the new leadership in Cairo is going to support Israel in its blockade of the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by a Hamas government.

As far as Syria is concerned, I am also no expert. My discussions with Syrian friends haven’t left me particularly hopeful, that things are going to improve there all that soon. It would seem, that the bloodletting and the destruction in Syria are going to continue for the foreseeable future and will have negative effects on the neighbouring countries, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Personally I don’t believe, that the fighting in Syria will spread to the Golan Heights, thereby posing a threat to the security of Israel.

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The neoclassical main entrance of the New York Public Library on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street – Photo: © 2013 by Schattenblick

SB: The political impact of the Syrian civil war is already being felt by the Palestinian organisations. The Hamas movement sided with the Muslim Brotherhood in the civil war in Syria and broke off relations with the Assad government. As a result, it had to vacate its headquarters in Damascus, lost the support of Iran and now stands completely isolated. What is your assessment of this development?

RK: The concept of an independent or sovereign government under the conditions of Israeli occupation, be it in the West Bank under the PLO or in the Gaza Strip under Hamas, is, in my opinion, a total illusion.

The Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah, which lacks all democratic legitimacy, is corrupt and takes its cue from the international donors and their wishes. Undoubtedly developments in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt will have an effect on the Palestinians’ situation. I would assume, that the social conditions of the Palestinians will improve in as much as the Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptians succeed in bringing about an end to oppression in their own countries. Unfortunately the sectarian and reactionary groups have taken the initiative from the progressive forces and are dictating events.

SB: On foot of the military coup against the government of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt a scenario is looming there similar to that in Algeria in the Nineties, when more than 200,000 people were killed in the course of a murderous civil war between the state security forces and Islamist militias. Such a scenario in the most populous country in the Arabic world must make every Arab’s blood run cold.

RK: I’ve been following recent events in Egypt, the brutal treatment of the supporters of deposed president Mohammed Morsi at the hands of the army and can only say, that what is happening there is extremely frightening. As a U.S. Citizen, however, one has to deal with the limited interest of the American media in matters abroad. At the moment they are all reporting about Egypt, while Iraq, where dozens of people are being killed daily by bomb-attacks, seems to have been completely forgotten. When on U.S. TV has one ever seen an Iraqi, describing the ongoing wave of violence in his country, or someone from Yemen, relaying information about the drone attacks of the CIA? Probably never. In all the countries of the Middle East numerous struggles against political repression are taking place, but our media choose not to report about them at all. That’s why I’m so pleased about the success of the BDS campaign. For the first time we’re seeing an autonomous movement of the Palestinian civil society obtain a hearing for the Palestinians’ situation.

SB: Along with your activities in the area of poetry and hip hop you also write frequently political commentary. Where do these articles usually appear?

RK: I used to write a lot for Counterpunch and Z Magazine. Because of tour and travel commitments I haven’t got around to it as much. For that reason, my most recent commentaries have been published on the website of the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera.

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Remi Kanazi explains and gesticulates simultaneously – Photo: © 2013 by Schattenblick

SB: In the connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there’s an ongoing discussion about the choice between a one-state-solution and a two-state-solution. Which of them would be your own preference?

RK: Mine would be the one-state-solution. The two-state-solution is forever being held up as a prospect, despite the fact of it no longer being a realistic option. One only has to take a look at the situation on the West Bank, which has been divided up by the Israelis into the three areas A, B and C. More than 600,000 Jewish settlers live there.

Israel has control over the groundwater reserves including those of the Jordan Valley. The Palestinian Authority exerts military and civilian control over only 20 percent of the West Bank. A further 20 percent are administered jointly by the Israelis and the authorities in Ramallah. In the other 60 percent of the Occupied Territories Israeli laws apply. That is why I, like most Palestinians, no longer believe, that a fair two-state-solution can be reached.

The one-state-solution is maybe not ideal, it offers however the best opportunity to fulfill the needs and claims of both peoples. Israelis and Palestinians are both living on this piece of territory. The best and fairest thing would be, if they had a joint state, in which everyone regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation enjoyed the same rights. Special rights for the Israelis and/or the Jewish settlers on the West Bank must be abolished. Everybody must be able to use the same roads and settle, wherever they want to, to give two examples. A solution must be found not merely for the problem of political but also for that of economic inequality. It must be acknowledged, that the Nakba didn’t simply conclude in 1948, but rather continues essentially to this day. Only then can the resulting inequality and injustice be rectified.

SB: You advocate the right of return for the Palestinian refugees to their ancestral homeland. Do you think that is realistic? In the hypothetical case, that the Israelis were at some stage to recognise this right, how would tens of thousands of Palestinian availing of it be put into practice? Would they all return or would a section of them be satisfied with a financial restitution?

RK: To start with, I would like remind your readers, that the Palestinians’ right of return is based upon Resolution 194 of the United Nations General Assembly from 1948, upon Humanitarian Law and also upon the U.N. Human Rights Charter. Every people, which has been cast out of its ancestral lands, has the right to go back there.

Regardless of whether they were forced abroad or made into internal refugees in Israel/Palestine, every Palestinian family has the right of return to its home. Human rights organisations such as Badil are already addressing the problems, which are to be expected, and making preparations for the resettlement. We don’t know, how many of the Palestinians living in the diaspora, for example in refugees camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, are going to return. It is nevertheless their right, and the choice lies with them alone. Is there enough land and resources to accommodate the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians? Of course there is!

The ethnic displacement of the Palestinians continues to this day. The latest example is Israel’s Prawer Plan, according to which between 40,000 and 70,000 Bedouins are to be forcibly relocated, in order to pave the way for economic annexation of the Negev Desert. For the Israelis it’s not just a question of preventing the return of the refugees from 1948 and 1967. They are also trying to incorporate the largest amount of territory with the least Palestinian population.

It’s no coincidence, that Israeli politicians portray the possibility, that the Palestinian population in Israel/Palestina will soon surpass that of the Israelis, as a “demographic bomb“, or that they discuss availing of the next best opportunity to chase all the Palestinians into Jordan. The fact is however, that neither are the Palestinians in Occupied Territories going allow themselves to be chased away nor are the refugees going to renounce their right of return.

It is obvious, that the Israelis are engaging here in a two-class system of rights. Palestinians, who were driven out in 1945 and whose ancestors lived in Palestine for centuries, are not allowed to return to their homeland, while every Jew, even if he or she has never been in Israel in his or her life, can become an Israeli citizen and immediately settle in the West Bank, while receiving state subsidies for doing so. Even internal Palestinian refugees in Israel/Palestine may not resettle in their former villages. To return to your original question: the return of the Palestinian refugees is not just legally required, but also desirable and achievable. For this reason Palestinian groups are already working towards the goal of resettlement.

SB: Do you think many Palestinian refugees will return, if they are given the chance?

RK: The numbers among those, who live further away from the region or have made a new life for themselves abroad, will be limited. But with regard to the Palestinians in the refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, I can imagine, that the a good number of them will want to make the journey. How many it will amount to in the end, I cannot say.

It could range from hundreds of thousands to two or three million. The hope of the Israelis, that the Palestinians would forget their ancestral home and resign themselves to their fate, has not been fulfilled. Similarly their attempt to consign former Palestine to oblivion, by building new settlements, altering the landscape and chopping down olive tree groves, has failed. The connectedness of the Palestinians to their homeland, language and traditions has not broken, but rather is being nurtured by each generation and passed on to the next.

Apart from that, I can’t imagine, how the two-state-solution would work. The Palestinians in the Occupied Territories won’t be satisfied with being living squashed into a couple of small and separated Bantustans with limited self-administration, while the Israelis retain the control over the external borders, the airspace and the groundwater. That can never work and instead carries within itself the seed of continuous tension and outbreaks of violence. Whether it be the fight to end slavery in the U.S.A., the struggle of the Irish against foreign rule by the English or the womens’ campaign for equal rights, people are always striving for freedom, regardless of their nationality or religion. Thus, the Palestinians will never be satisfied by a solution, which their oppressors suggest for their joint problem. That would be the two-state-solution. In the end, I believe, that history, morality and ethics will be on the side of the Palestinians. When I see, how politically active the diaspora has become and how successfully the various grassroots groups in recent years have managed to direct international attention on the plight of the Palestinian, it gives me grounds for optimism.

SB: Thank you, Remi Kanazi, for this interview.

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The shore of Manhattan’s Upper East Side with the U. N. Headquarters on left of the picture. Photo: © 2013 by Schattenblick

The view of Turtle Bay seen from Gantry Plaza State Park, on the shore of the New York Borough of Queens, which lies due east of Upper Manhattan – Photo: © 2013 by Schattenblick

Originally published in German on September 28, 2013.

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Donagh is the editor of Irish Left Review. Contact Donagh through email: dublinopinionAtgmail.com