Who is Hanan Ashrawi?

Sober and sensitive, or unscrupulous?

Hanan Ashrawi – Palestinian legislator, activist, and scholar – is an accomplished woman. A member of the PLO Executive Committee and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s Third Way Party as well as being the first woman elected to the Palestinian National Council, she has managed to combine her political career with her more scholarly pursuits.

Born in 1946 in Nablus, in what was then the British Mandate for Palestine, she holds a Ph.D. in Medieval and Comparative Literature from the University of Virginia. In 1973, she founded the Department of English at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, serving as department head from 1973-1978 and 1981-1984. In 2003, over the objections of some Jewish organizations, she won Australia’s Sydney Peace Prize.

Despite her impressive credentials, I was somewhat reluctant to attend Ashrawi’s lecture at Brown University last September 25. I remember all too well seeing her in action on CNN 20 years ago or so, where she frequently appeared as the official spokesperson for the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East peace process. I can still hear in my inner ear her fiery delivery of well-formulated but belligerent anti-Israel sound bites.

I entered the auditorium of Brown’s Salomon Hall expecting to hear more of the same; what I heard instead was an articulate, thoughtful and relatively balanced academic talk entitled “Oslo: Process vs. Peace,” the first in a series of presentations under the rubric, “Oslo is Dead: Long Live Oslo.” 

During her 50-minute lecture, Ashrawi argued that the reason the Oslo talks have not borne fruit during the past 20 years is that this particular peace process has contained within it the seeds of its own destruction, that “the talks have led nowhere because they lack the ingredients of success.” In particular, Ashrawi held that the Palestinian and Israeli peoples have needed to take public ownership of the peace process, while all along the process has remained secret.

In addition, what was to have been a transitional phase has become permanent – freezing in place an imbalance between a strong Israel and a politically and economically weak Palestinian people. According to Ashrawi, the Palestinians have been reduced to living in areas labled A, B, or C: “We live in letters of the alphabet.”

As was to be expected, Ashrawi insisted that Palestinian nation-building requires an end to the occupation, which she characterized as “captivity and enslavement.” From her perspective, there can be no peace settlement until the occupation ends.

From my own perspective, ending the occupation and achieving a peaceful two-state solution remain very much a chicken and the egg issue. Which comes first? Israel will not withdraw until it receives iron-clad security guarantees, while Palestinians will not declare peace until they have their own land on which to build their new nation.

It should come as no surprise that Ashrawi has her share of vociferous critics. Among them is David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee; on Sept. 2, 2012, he published a scathing online column in the “Huffington Post” entitled “Hanan Ashrawi Is to Truth What Smoking Is to Health,” in which he accused her of having “just earned a gold medal for historical revision.” The burden of Harris’ piece is that Ashrawi, in an article addressed to Arabic readers, “asserted that there were no Jewish refugees from Arab countries.”

“Instead, according to her, there were only ‘emigrants’ who left their ancestral homes voluntarily. Jews were not singled out for persecution, and if they were, it was, in reality, a plot by the Zionists.” Given the fact that his wife happens to be a Jewish refugee from post-1967 Libya, Harris took personal umbrage at what he viewed as Ashrawi’s “denial of Jewish history.” Such denial of Jewish history “gets to the core of the conflict. It is not the side show; it’s the main show.” 

To be honest, since I cannot speak or read Arabic, I have no way of evaluating whether or not Harris has distorted Ashrawi’s position. What I do know is that the Ashrawi in his column does not appear to be the Ashrawi I heard at Brown last month.

Who, then, is Hanan Ashrawi – an unscrupulous historical revisionist wearing ideological blinders or a sober and sensitive academic and politician who grasps the nuances of an exceedingly complex situation? It seems to me that, like so many of us of a certain age, Ashrawi is most likely an earnest and capable woman who is still striving to reconcile the deep contradictions with which she has lived for several decades.

James B. Rosenberg is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeri-tus@templehabonim.org.