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Ziad J. Asali, M.D.

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Another Look at Palestinian Culture

Posted: 08/09/2012 11:32 am

Given the current conversation about issue of Palestinian culture and its relationship to politics and economics, I feel it's appropriate for me to add my own Palestinian-American perspective.

Palestinian culture has developed in the broader Arab, and more specifically Levantine, contexts. Contemporary Palestinian Arabs are among the primary, although not the sole, heirs of the accumulation of history in their land, including prehistoric, ancient, biblical and Jewish, Roman, Islamic, Crusader, Ottoman and British periods. Their distinct national identity emerged contemporaneously with and parallel to the Israeli identity and Zionist movement. Palestinians differ from other Arabs culturally in many ways, but within different localities they also differ from each other.

It is the experiences of the 20th century, particularly the British mandate, the encounter with Zionism and Israel, and the often tense interaction with other Arab societies and states that has given the Palestinians their distinctive national culture. The persistence of the Palestinian issue for so many decades reflects the tenacity and resilience of their national identity and culture.

The Palestinian quest for excellence in education isn't culturally hardwired or built into their DNA. It is rather the specific byproduct of the Palestinian experience in the past century. Palestinians, particularly of my generation, were forced to confront a reality without national institutions to rely on. Our parents and we knew, after the Nakba in 1948, that we had few real alternatives other than education in making our way in the world.

The Palestinian spirit of entrepreneurship has been reflected around the region and the globe, and continues to resiliently operate in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This entrepreneurship and the knowledge-set acquired through intensive education significantly contributed to the whole region in the 50s-70s as Palestinians helped to develop many Arab societies.

As former president Bill Clinton noted in 2011, Palestinians "have done remarkably well outside their country. I have never met a poor Palestinian in the United States; every Palestinian I know is a college professor or a doctor." This is not to say, of course, that all Palestinians belong to an elite group. But it does mean that there are other explanations for a struggling Palestinian economy in the occupied territories than simply the Palestinian mentality.

Every serious study of the Palestinian economy has noted the deeply onerous effects of the restrictions of the Israeli occupation. Without them, there is no question that Palestinians would be faring better.

During the first Intifada that began 1987 and the second that began in 2000, education among Palestinians was significantly disrupted and has not yet fully recovered. A World Bank report issued on July 25 recognized the centrality of occupation restrictions to hampering the development of a more robust Palestinian economy, but it also emphasized the need for Palestinians to revamp their educational system to better prepare their people for private-sector employment.

Like most of the Arab, and much of the developing, world, Palestinian education tends to emphasize rote learning rather than fostering analytical skills and critical thinking. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad recognized this in an important speech on education he gave on August 8, 2010, in which he said the educational system in the West Bank should focus on critical thinking, language skills and combating fanaticism.

Palestinian politics has, not surprisingly, mirrored that of other Arab societies and included elements of patronage, corruption, and a lack of transparency and accountability. But since at least the 1970s there has been an active and dynamic Palestinian civil society that was unusual in most of the Arab world. This relative political pluralism and openness, however imperfect, may be among the key reasons that Palestinians have not experienced their own uprising during the current "Arab Spring." And importantly it was the Palestinians themselves who began seriously tackling problems with governance and emphasizing self-reliance, particularly through the state and institution building program launched in 2009.

Even before the "Arab Spring," serious reforms aimed at good governance, transparency and accountability were underway in one of the most unlikely Arab contexts: the occupied West Bank. The institution-building program led by Fayyad still stands as one of the most thoroughgoing efforts at reform in the Arab world and anticipated many of the key demands that erupted throughout the region in the past 18 months. Palestinian society is currently the scene of a wide-ranging set of debates about the role government, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, and the quality of private and public institutions. This debate should be acknowledged and encouraged.

Over the past 30 years, the rise of religious fanaticism in some parts of Palestinian society, mirroring that in the broader Arab world as well as among Jewish Israelis, has also undermined healthy social, cultural and educational attitudes. However, such fanaticism does not define the Palestinian mainstream or essential national culture. To the contrary, most Palestinians, while devout and socially conservative, remain essentially secular and fundamentally worldly.

Palestinians are no better or worse than any other group of human beings. They've reacted to a series of harsh developments over the past century much as any other group of people probably would have. As long as they remain without a country in which they can be first class citizens, this will continue to hamper their economic viability and stunt the development of their society and institutions. Palestinians deserve the opportunity they've been denied for so long, to build their own state and develop their culture in independence and freedom.

 
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