My Palestinian mother was like Baltimore’s Toya Graham

In the first Intifada, my mother recognized the need to resist but she also wanted to keep her daughter safe — so she locked the doors and hid the keys. But if we are to be consistent, shouldn’t police officers’ mothers be responsible for stopping brutality? Shouldn’t Israeli soldiers’ mothers put a stop the arrests and mistreatment of Palestinian children?

By Nadia Naser-Najjab

The image of Toya Graham berating her own son and pulling him away from confrontations between police and protestors in Baltimore, where police brutality has sparked violent protests, resonated so deeply for me. I had witnessed this scene before, in my own family.

After the first Intifada broke out in 1987, the Israeli government responded to a wave of strikes, protests and demonstrations with direct violence (Yitzhak Rabin, who was the Israeli defense minister at the time, famously ordered the army to ‘break the bones’ of Palestinian protestors). Palestinians, including children, were routinely subject to beatings and arbitrary detention. In forcibly repressing a largely non-violent uprising, Israeli soldiers killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and left tens of thousands with life-changing injuries.

During this period it was my own mother who was remonstrating with my teenage sister, who had joined protests that sought to challenge the Israeli occupation. My mother’s reaction might well come as something of a shock to those external observers who — upon the basis of decontextualized depictions of Palestinian mothers celebrating their children’s martyrdom — have come to believe that Palestinians hate Israel and Israelis more than they love their own children.

According to that (mis)representation, Palestinian parenting practices — and not the political context of dispossession, brutalization and occupation — are to blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Read also: Testimonies from detained Palestinian children

Of course that idea, made famous by Golda Meir, is nothing but a dehumanising and grossly offensive slur. Palestinian mothers and fathers have always been torn between their commitment to the broader Palestinian cause and their love for their own children. My father once told me that he would have a heart attack if I was arrested. However, both he and my mother risked arrest when they joined a protest after the funeral of a 10-year-old child who had been killed while playing in my home village of Burqa.

My mother recognized the need to resist and to fight for a better future but she also wanted to prevent her daughter from ending up in prison or the morgue. So she locked the doors and hid the keys. She once told me that I would not understand until I was a mother myself. She was partially right. Becoming a mother has helped me to understand the dilemmas she faced, but I still struggle with the tension between my heart and my head.

The selective condemnation of violence

In asking ourselves whether we would act in the same way as Toya Graham, we should first ask whether we believe that victims should be held to the same moral standards as perpetrators. This is the deeply insidious (and familiar) proposition that is being advanced when we are told by governments, whose very basis of authority lies in the ability to inflict and perpetrate violence, that violence should be universally condemned.

I would therefore be inclined to suggest that this duality is related to Toya Graham’s sudden rise to fame. Aside from performing her obligations as a mother she has also, in preventing harm being inflicted upon others, fulfilled her civic duty. We are all therefore invited to join the likes of Golda Meir in the comforting illusion that, if more mothers were like Toya the world would be a better, safer and more harmonious place.

However, surely, if we wished to be consistent, we would go further than this. Is there not an obligation for all parents to prevent their children from inflicting harm on others? Would it not, then, be morally imperative for a police officer’s mother to disarm her son as he inflicts a brutal and sadistic beating? Or for the mother of an Israeli soldier to prevent her son from arresting and torturing children?

Read +972’s special coverage: Children Under Occupation

These questions may well seem absurd, but that is mainly because we have become so habitualized to state violence that we conflate legal or political justifications with a moral ones. The irony is that, under these circumstances, the selective condemnation of specific instances of violence  — whether perpetrated by black American protestors or Palestinians — ultimately contributes, to a greater or lesser extent (as in the case of Toya Graham), to the perpetuation of a political order that is itself based upon indirect and direct forms of violence.

The problem is violence itself

As a Palestinian, I am familiar with a state of affairs in which I am expected to disavow and disown violence, and then acquiesce to the perpetuation of broader structures and relations of violence: this expectation has essentially sustained the last 20 years of the ‘peace process.’

Taking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a reference point, I would be inclined to suggest that the real issue is the (deeply rooted) tendency to conceive of violence as a problem in itself, rather than as a symptom of prior injustices. To conceive of violence in its immediate proximity is to legitimize the broader forms of violence (direct and indirect, immediate and structural) embedded and embodied within the status quo.

I would like to offer an initial suggestion as to why the Toya Graham story has suddenly achieved such prominence. This is a classic human-interest story, in which the protagonist, acting upon the basis of a human impulse, has restored our faith in a shared humanity. Of course this ascription ignores the actual reality. Toya acted the way she did because of a sentiment that is by no means common to all Americans, let alone all humans: namely that her son, like so many Americans of the same skin color, would die as a consequence of state violence.

In this instance, as is so often the case, the subtext is more significant than the ostensible point of reference. In engaging with the Toya Graham story, we are invited to celebrate that most natural of impulses with which all mothers can identify: the desire to protect their children from harm. However, in focusing upon a mother’s act of ‘heroism,’ we allow ourselves to turn away from the broader context of the act, and to effectively legitimize broader structures of violence. That, I would be inclined to suggest, is the real story emerging from Baltimore.

Dr. Nadia Naser-Najjab, PhD in Middle East Studies, and at present an Associate Research Fellow at the European Center of Palestine Studies-Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. Her research work is related to Palestine and the Palestine-Israel conflict.

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