Barack Obama’s insistence that Israel cease all building in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, calling such neighborhoods “settlements,” raises an interesting question. Who are the settlers in Jerusalem?

A good example of the lack of clarity over Palestinian claims to Jerusalem is found in prominent Palestinian-American spokesman George Bisharat.

Bisharat is a Professor at Hastings College of Law, and a leader of the movement to delegitize Israel as a Jewish state and in place create a single state encompassing what now is Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Bisharat compares the Jewish claim to the land of Israel as a homeland to a rapist and the Palestinian resistance to that of the victimized woman. (Video, at 7:25). Bisharat repeatedly refers to Jews “taking another people’s country” (Video at 9:00) even though there never was a country called Palestine or a separate national entity for the Arabs of Palestinian.

Yet much of Bisharat’s family narrative is exaggerated, at a minimum. I previously documented Bisharat’s claim that his father was forced to abandon an art show at a Jewish-owned art gallery due to his father having spoken up for Palestinian rights. That claim, made by Bisharat long after both his father and the gallery owner had died, leaving no witnesses, was disputed by people affiliated with the gallery.

Bisharat regularly and for decades has played upon his family history as forming his narrative of Israel’s lack of legitimacy, and his call for a single state encompassing what now is Israel, the West Bank and Gaza (emphasis mine):

…[M]emory can provide a blueprint for the future — a vision of a solution to seek, or an outcome to avoid. My Palestinian father grew up in Jerusalem before Israel was founded and the Palestinians expelled, when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in peace and mutual respect. Recalling that past provides a vision for an alternative future — one involving equal rights and tolerance, rather than the domination of one ethno-religious group over others.

The loss of the family home in Jerusalem (in a section within Israel’s pre-1967 borders) is a particularly important part of Bisharat’s narrative. Here is Bisharat’s recollection of his 1977 visit to Jerusalem to his ancestral home:

When I went to Jerusalem in 1977, I had only a photograph of the home, and a general description of its location from my grandmother. It was summer, hot and dusty, and I paced back and forth through the neighborhood inspecting each of the houses, occasionally asking for directions. All the street names had been changed to those of Zionist leaders and figures from Jewish history, and the hospital that my grandmother had described as a landmark apparently no longer existed. As I was resting against a wall in the shade, I saw a home that resembled Papa’s. As I hurried across the street, I could just make out the name in the tile: Villa Harun ar-Rashid. I guess Golda’s sandblasters had been a little rushed.

TENSION AND FEAR. I was immediately flooded with emotion — anger, sadness, and most of all — tension, tinged with fear. I walked through the garden toward the front staircase, putting my hand on the stone banister, as I knew Papa and my own father must have done countless times. I rang the bell.

After a long wait, an elderly woman opened the door. I explained my visit by saying that my grandfather had built the home, displayed my American passport, and asked if I could briefly see the interior. Virtually her first words were: “The family (meaning my family) never lived here.”

Bisharat visited again with his family in 2000 (emphasis mine):

In 2000, we made this same pilgrimage as a family. As we stood across the street, I recounted the story of Golda Meir’s defacement of the tiles to my son and daughter. I was overcome. Instantly my little son embraced my leg, then my daughter hugged my waist, and finally my wife my upper body, and briefly, we stood there huddled together, tears streaking all our faces….

The front door swung open and a man smilingly offered: “May I help you?” …. But when I said that my father’s family had lived in the home, he was incredulous. This time, I was not surprised as he protested, still congenially: “But the family never lived here.” He had gleaned this from a newspaper article, he maintained. Repeatedly, he insisted, it seemed a half dozen times: “The family never lived here.”

Of course, the family did live there, notwithstanding the denials, justifications, and obfuscations we have faced. So did hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians “live there.” The keys to their homes there still adorn the walls of apartments, houses, rooms, and refugee hovels throughout the world. We have not disappeared, nor have we forgotten, our existence a reminder that one people’s liberation was founded on another’s dispossession….

Recently I found my daughter lingering over photos of my father as a boy in his Jerusalem home. I know now that she and my son both are heirs of the truth about Villa Harun ar-Rashid.

Bisharat’s family narrative, while moving, is at best exaggerated. In fact, Bisharat’s family was not indigenous to Jerusalem or any part of what now is Israel, and his grandfather did not grow up in Jerusalem.

Rather, Bisharat’s family members were immigrants to Jerusalem who lived in Villa Harun ar-Rashid for just a few years in the late 1920s and early 1930s before renting it out as absentee landlords and then leaving for greener pastures abroad.

I base this statement on Bisharat’s own documentation of his family history which appeared not in any of the Western newspapers in which he recounts his moving family narrative, but in an article he published in 2007 in the Palestinian Jerusalem Quarterly.

Everything I am about to recount about Bisharat’s family history is taken from Bisharat’s own documentation of his family history:

  • Bisharat’s grandfather was from what now is Jordan: “My grandfather, whom we all called ‘Papa’, was born in 1893 in as-Salt, now in Jordan, although then a part of an Ottoman district called the Belqa’, that straddled the Jordan River.”
  • Bisharat’s great grandparents were from Nablus, now under Palestinian Authority control, not Jerusulem or any part of what now is Israel: “[Bisharat’s grandfather] Ibrahim, and two uncles, Salti and Saliba, had settled there [as-Salt] only 15 years or so before [1893], having migrated eastward from Rafidia, a village adjacent to Nablus.”
  • Bisharat’s grandfather went to Jerusalem to study: “My grandfather, Hanna Ibrahim Bisharat, was the fourth of Ibrahim and Fida’s seven children. At some point in his youth, Papa came to the attention of Father Maurice Gisler, a Swiss missionary and archaeologist, perhaps during one of the latter’s digs around Madaba, near Um al-Kundum. Gisler apparently recognized something special in my grandfather, and invited him to come to Jerusalem to study….”
  • Bisharat’s grandfather left Jerusalem in 1908: “Hanna studied in the Schneller’s Boys School (also known as the ‘Bishop Gobat’ school) in Jerusalem, gaining fluency in English and French to complement his native Arabic and Turkish. Around 1908 he was sent, under Father Gisler’s auspices, to an institute outside Freiberg, Switzerland to study agricultural engineering.”
  • Bisharat’s family lived in the Jerusalem home which is the subject of his narrative only a few years beginning in the late 1920s: “My family lived in the Talbiyeh home for several years, during which several of my uncles were born.”
  • Bisharat’s family vacated the Jerusalem home for financial reasons, not Zionist occupation: “Facing dire financial straits in the early thirties, my grandparents moved out of Villa Harun ar-Rashid for more modest accommodations on the Bethlehem road, and rented their home to officers of the British Royal Air Force.”
  • Bisharat’s family left British-controlled Palestine before Israel’s War of Independence, and left behind their rental property: “My family’s intended-to-be-temporary dispersal from Palestine preceded, and was essentially unrelated to, the 1947-1949 war. As I have already indicated, it was business and education that took my relatives from Palestine.”

While Bisharat’s family may have lost title to the rental property they owned in Jerusalem (similar to the homes lost by Jews who fled Arab countries), Bisharat’s family was not indigenous to Jerusalem, and had a short history in Jerusalem. Did that make them settlers?

Does this change the narrative of the indigenous people supposedly cast into exile by the evil Zionists?

Things are not always so clear in the Middle East. And if Bisharat’s family history is any judge, some of the narratives of Palestine which we repeatedly hear as a justification for the delegitimization of Israel are exaggerated at best.

Related Post:
Law Professor Continues His Personal Intifada


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