Hanna Ibrahim Mikha’il was a teenager when he witnessed thousands of refugees pouring into his hometown of Ramallah during the Nakba. Years later, with a doctorate in politics and Islamic studies from Harvard, he seemed poised for a promising career in academia. After the humiliating Arab defeat in 1967, however, Mikha’il felt compelled to leave the United States and join the Palestinian resistance organization, Fatah, where he eventually became a member of the Leadership Committee in Lebanon under the nom de guerre Abu ‘Umar. Following UN recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in 1974, Fatah leader and PLO chairman Yasir Arafat asked Abu ‘Umar to serve as the first Palestinian delegate to the UN but he refused: he had committed himself to developing the internal foundation of the Palestinian national movement, which he believed ought to be revolutionary and rooted in an intimate knowledge of Palestinian culture. Because of the power asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians, he argued, a Palestinian state could not be achieved without democratic solidarity movements in the West and Israel that would pressure their governments to support Palestinian self-determination. Abu ‘Umar’s vision was of a democratic Palestinian state with equal rights for all citizens, Arabs and Jews. He disappeared in mysterious circumstances off the coast of Lebanon in 1976, one year into what turned out to be a 15-year war. Decades afterwards, in a portrait of resistance published in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Elias Khoury and Jehan Helou paid tribute to Abu ‘Umar “to revive our memory of a time when commitment and self-sacrifice were the rule rather than the exception in the Palestinian Resistance.”
Dr. Eyad El Sarraj, Gaza’s first psychiatrist and pioneer of community-based mental health services, scorned Zionism but never Israelis. He saw their aggression toward and paranoia regarding Palestinians as a consequence of Jewish suffering (with the Holocaust at its center) which imbued Israelis with an acute sense of vulnerability that resulted in them lashing out at any imagined threat. Unfair as it might be for the victim to assuage the victimizer, the Palestinians, in el-Sarraj’s view, had to see to it that Israeli fears were disarmed. He told a story once about finding himself in a pedestrian jam that had formed as a man waved a sword around a frightened crowd. “The man was frightened more than anyone. He was defiant but deeply frightened,” el-Sarraj related. “And he was one of my patients.” The crowd was closing in on the frightened soul and El-Sarraj was certain they would kill him in their effort to restrain him. He called out the man’s name and approached him with open arms. “He still had the sword, right? He could have killed me. What does this story teach? First, that we have to be willing to take risks if we want to disarm fear. Second, that our approach must be gentle but deliberate. And third, we have to understand that panic is painful, and that if given a chance, most people, even those suffering from a mental disorder, will choose to surrender their fear.” Another day, at the Erez checkpoint, an Israeli soldier accosted him belligerently but the doctor disarmed him with humor. “I am a psychiatrist,” he said. “That’s an important job. Both of us need a psychiatrist. Every president, every prime minister needs a psychiatrist.” The soldier, in El-Sarraj’s eyes, was another frightened soul whose fear needed to be assuaged. Later that evening, after crossing into Tel Aviv, the psychiatrist from Gaza told a crowd of Israelis: “There are huge differences that separate us. But what we face, what both people face, is a common set of challenges. Unless we meet these challenges together, we both are doomed.” Dr. El Sarraj died from leukemia in December 2013.
Mujid Suleiman Kazimi was less than a year old when Zionist militias forced his family from their Jerusalem home in 1948, driving them into exile. After primary schooling in Jordan and Kuwait, he returned to Palestine for high school and graduated from Birzeit College as a “model student for excellence in the sciences.” Graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) soon followed and by 1989 Kazimi was the head of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE). In the words of the current NSE chair, during his time at MIT, Kazimi distinguished himself as “one of the world’s great nuclear engineers,” whose contributions transformed nuclear power into a more economically efficient and safer source of energy. Although he won great recognition – including election to the National Academy of Engineering, the highest level of achievement in the field – Kazimi never abandoned his Palestinian roots. As a student at MIT, he served as president of the Arab Student Organization and later joined the prestigious but now-defunct Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG), committing himself to counter anti-Arab stereotypes. A board member of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, he related with great empathy the injustice that burdened the Palestinians: “Going back [to Jerusalem] is always an emotional experience. The Separation Wall comes right [up] to the border of the university. It’s really very painful to think of how these walls have separated the Palestinians and restricted their movement. It’s a real manifestation of them being in a cage and not being able to move out of it.” For many Palestinians, he was an incredibly inspiring figure – a testament to what is achievable no matter the obstacles and prejudice in the way. One of his former students at MIT wrote in his commemoration, “I’ll never forget that first meeting when I walked into his office and saw a large portrait of [al-]Aqsa [Mosque] covering a pretty good portion of the wall . . . His attachment to the Arab and Palestinian identities while leading one of the most successful nuclear engineering programs in the world was simply inspiring. The story of a man born in Jerusalem during such difficult times and making it this far will always be a symbol that represents what it means to be Palestinian and what it means to be Arab.” Kazimi, the preeminent Palestinian-American scientist, died of a sudden heart attack in July 2015.
As Journal of Palestine Studies editor Rashid Khalidi once wrote in particular reference to Kazimi, the three men depicted in this special focus constitute “an example of the level of distinction that many Palestinians have attained in spite of the circumstances that have afflicted their people for generations.” Unlike others who have also known and been transformed by tragedy, the Palestinian people remain consigned to their tragic fate. Notwithstanding their struggles, Palestinians continue to stand out for their remarkable professional achievements and as examples of steadfast resistance. Honoring their legacy serves to preserve collective Palestinian memory and history.
The Institute for Palestine Studies’ Special Focus – Remembrances presents a series of portraits and obituaries drawn from material published in the Journal of Palestine Studies that pay tribute to the extraordinary Palestinians who committed their lives toward bettering the fate of their people and honoring their heritage.