Controversial Palestinian professor calmly teaches Israeli poetry in Gaza

GAZA CITY – Forty-five minutes after the start of his first morning seminar, a Palestinian professor at the Islamic University in Gaza C...


GAZA CITY – Forty-five minutes after the start of his first morning seminar, a Palestinian professor at the Islamic University in Gaza City asked his 70 undergraduate literature students a question: who wrote the unsigned poem that they had spent the class reading?

For the students, all women, the identity of the poet, or at least his origin, was obvious.

It was a text about Jerusalem, a city they, as young Palestinians unable to leave Gaza for most of their lives, had long cherished but never visited. And the poem was written from the point of view of a melancholy spectator who, like them, loved but could not enter the city.

His English translation begins as follows:

On a roof in the old town

laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight

the white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,

the towel of a man who is my enemy

Sondos Alfayoumi raised his hand. The poem was written by a Palestinian, looking from afar at an Israeli’s laundry, said Ms. Alfayoumi, 19. “It shows a man who cannot access something that belongs to him,” she said. “A man working in the occupied territories.

The class nodded. Only a Palestinian could have written with such warmth about Jerusalem, said a second student.

But the teacher, Refaat Alareer, had a surprise pending. “The poet of this very beautiful play is actually not a Palestinian,” he said.

There was a hubbub of whispers as the class understood what this meant. Someone gasped and Mrs. Alfayoumi suppressed a shocked laugh.

“He is an Israeli poet,” continued Mr. Alareer, “called Yehuda Amichai. “

It was a moment that added nuance to two contrasting narratives: one adopted by the students themselves, many of whom knew someone killed or injured by Israeli missiles, and whose interaction with Israel is often limited to air strikes; and that of many Israelis, who often think that the Palestinian education system is only an incentive.

Here is an appreciation of one of Israel’s most beloved poets by a Palestinian professor at a university co-founded by the former head of Hamas, the militant group that runs the government in Gaza, does not recognize Israel and is responsible for dozens of suicide attacks against Israelis. Experts say the study of Israeli poetry in Palestinian colleges is rare, but not unheard of.

What Mr. Alareer admired in the poem “Jerusalem,” he told his students, is the way he blurs the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians and suggests that “Jerusalem can be the place where we are. we all come together, regardless of religion and faith ”.

“When I read this,” he added, “I was really like, ‘Oh my god, this is beautiful. I have never seen anything like it. I never thought I would read it. And then I realized: no, there are so many other Israelis, Jews, who are totally and completely against the occupation.

Mr. Alareer, 42, is not an obvious champion of Hebrew poetry.

The Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza hampered his academic career, sometimes preventing him from studying abroad. He has parents in Hamas and his brother was killed during the 2014 war with Israel. He has co-edited two essay books and short fiction films on the struggles of life in Gaza.

And on social media, he frequently writes furious roadblocks that portray Israel as a source of evil, posts that led to his Twitter account being suspended. In Publish he wrote: “No form, act or means of Palestinian resistance whatsoever is terror. All Israelis are soldiers. All of Palestine is occupied.

But in the amphitheater, Mr. Alareer has a gentler academic approach. As part of an undergraduate course in international literature, he teaches not only the works of Mr. Amichai but also of Tuvya Ruebner, another prominent Israeli poet. He introduced the students to “The Merchant of Venice” and “Oliver Twist”, and encouraged his classes to sympathize with the Jewish characters in the texts, Shylock and Fagin.

While Shylock and Fagin, two complex figures who have sparked debate for centuries but are widely regarded as anti-Semitic caricatures, It may seem like an odd choice for teaching Palestinians empathy, Mr. Alareer encourages his students to sympathize with them as victims of a fanatic society.

Perhaps the most moving moment in Mr. Alareer’s teaching career, he wrote in a 2015 essay, “It was when I asked my students which of the characters they identified most with: Othello, with his Arab origins, or Shylock the Jew. Most of the students felt closer to Shylock and more sympathetic to him than to Othello.

His students interpreted Mr. Amichai’s poem as a representation of Palestinians cut off from Jerusalem by a wall built in the 2000s. But the revelation of the poet’s identity was a reminder of how Jews were stranded from the ancient city center when Jordan controlled the Old City of Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967.

In the sky of the old town

a kite

At the other end of the wire,

a child

I can not see

because of the wall.

“As Palestinians, do we have a problem with the Jews, as Jews? Mr. Alareer asked his class. “No, it’s kind of a political struggle.”

Mr. Amichai died in 2000. His widow, Chana Sokolov, and his son, David, later said that while they disagreed with the content of Mr. Alareer’s social media posts, they were inspired by his use and interpretation of the poem.

“My father would probably be very happy to hear that people use poetry to see humanity from the other side,” said David Amichai, who researches anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “It is very moving that he uses this poem to try to teach Israeli society,” Amichai added.

For some of Mr. Alareer’s students, the poet’s Israeli identity came across as a minor revelation.

“Maybe it changed something in my mind about their experience,” Ms. Alfayoumi said. “It’s like we’re sharing things. We are in relation.

But then she stopped. There was a limit to the empathy she felt for a nation whose warplanes had bombed Gaza for 11 consecutive days earlier this year.

For the Israelis, Hamas was the instigator of the fights in May: War broke out after Hamas fired several rockets at Jerusalem and continued to target thousands of other unguided missiles at many Israeli towns.

But for Palestinians like Ms Alfayoumi, Hamas was responding to Israeli actions in Jerusalem, including raids on the Aqsa Mosque. And the final toll was asymmetric, with Gaza suffering almost all of the conflict’s more than 260 deaths.

“At the end of the day, the gap in our experiences is huge, when you compare their losses to ours and their luxury life to ours,” Ms. Alfayoumi said. “We can communicate and share things – but at the end of the day they have to admit what they’ve done.”

Another student said she couldn’t believe an Israeli actually wrote the poem, even after Mr. Alareer revealed who he was.

“I always insist that this is a Palestinian,” said Aya al-Mufti, 19, citing the phrase “the old city,” which she believed only an Arab would use.

Mr. Alareer said it was his right: the meaning of any text was open to interpretation by its readers. But he still bristled slightly, and gently hinted that she hadn’t understood most of the lesson.

“If you want to occupy the poem,” he said with a hint of sarcasm, “good for you.

Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting.



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