How Politics and Religion Shape Palestinian Bereavement

Despite the singular features of Palestinian mourning, what ultimately stands out in Dr. Maram Masarwi’s new book is the human, universal similarity between Arab and Jewish loss.

The mother of murdered Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khedeir reacts in court as the guilty verdict of one of his killers is announced in court on April 19, 2016.
Ammar Awad, Reuters

“Politi-Religization of Bereavement in Palestinian Society: Gender, Religion and Nationality” (“Politidatia shel sh’khol bahevra Hapalestininit: Migdar, dat ule’om”), by Maram Masarwi; Resling Publishing, 167 pps, Hebrew, 69 shekels

It is impossible to read this book by Dr. Maram Masarwi in isolation from the sensitivities that have been forced on Israelis and Palestinians in the long years of the conflict or from the atmosphere that is pervasive across the entire region. For example, the painful clash this past February between Simha Goldin – the father of the soldier Hadar Goldin, who was killed in Operation Protective Edge in 2014 – and veteran Army Radio broadcaster Razi Barkai, over what constitutes “Palestinian bereavement” as opposed to “Israeli bereavement.” The taboo on the subject in Israeli society extends not only to the articulation of the “proper” or “worthy” way to express, internalize or identify with bereavement, but also the definition of its objects. How is it possible, Goldin asked, to compare the pain felt by a bereaved Israeli parent with the pain of the parent of a “terrorist”? To which Barkai replied, “A bereaved Arab mother is no different from a bereaved Jewish mother.”

That the subject is loaded to the point of mutual blindness was brought home to me vividly when I failed in an attempt to discuss Masarwi’s book with some Israelis, including a few young people who recently completed their army service. The “sheer comparison” generated fierce emotional resistance among my interlocutors. They displayed an innate inability to accept a dialogue that was based on similitude in the perception of bereavement. The responses I got included shock at the appropriation of terminology that is used for Israeli bereavement – “fallen son,” “slain,” “loss of loved ones,” “martyrdom” – to describe and analyze the Palestinian experience.

This is not surprising. The inimical responses to the book were driven by a deep need to identify with one’s own side and at the same time to turn gaze and heart away from the suffering of the other side. The human cost entailed in bereavement is so high that it inevitably tips the scale: Any attempt to strike a balance will be perceived as cheapening the death of “our boys.” Both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict bear this conceptual and emotional baggage, and it leads them, consciously or not, to dehumanize the other side – both in life and in death.

Masarwi is dean of the faculty of education at Al Qasemi College, in Baka al-Garbiyeh, in Israel’s north, and a lecturer at David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem. She prefaces her book, which is based on her doctoral dissertation at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with a quote from the Arabic-language novel “Safe Weddings,” by the Jordanian-Palestinian writer Ibrahim Nasrallah (2004). The excerpt deals with the dilemma of whether bereaved Palestinian mothers should mourn publicly or express cries of joy over the death of their child as a shahid, a martyr for the cause. “She knows that this moment will come,” Nasrallah writes, “the moment when she will have to betray her grief and anguish Those who force us to rejoice at the funerals of the martyrs are their murderers. We rejoice in order not to allow them to experience the illusion of victory for even a moment. And if we live so long, I will remind you that we will yet weep a great deal after the liberation, we will lament those at whose funerals we rejoiced.”

So, before embarking on her basically academic discussion, Masarwi is sidestepping a pitfall by seemingly answering the question of why Palestinian fathers distribute candies and Palestinian mothers break into cries of joy instead of bewailing their dead shahids.

In the preface, Masarwi aims to eliminate a potential disparity between Israeli readers’ perception of bereavement on each side. The anguish of a bereaved Palestinian mother is no different from that of a bereaved Israeli mother, she observes, just as someone who is perceived as a “terrorist” by one side might be seen as a “hero” or “warrior” by the other side.

Ironically, Masarwi provides ammunition for the intuitive resistance to what she writes by identifying with the perception of the Israeli side as “murderers.” As such, she too errs in adopting a stance that identifies with one side, and manifests the emotional and moral complexity involved in writing a book of this kind and in relating to it.

Together with the idea that bereavement and mourning are basically universal phenomena, Masarwi’s aim is to analyze the distinctive elements of Palestinian bereavement from national, religious and gender points of view, and to consider the mutual relations between those perspectives. At the personal level, she finds few differences between the expressions of bereavement in different cultures. In general, she notes, a religious outlook and belief in fate are tools that facilitate acceptance of loss. At the national level, what sets apart Palestinian bereavement is the phenomenon of “politi-religization,” a term coined by Masarwi to encapsulate the interplay between personal and collective bereavement in Palestinian society, and that evokes the politicization of religion or the religization of politics.

According to Masarwi, the manufacturers of nationalism shape its perception by means of the rediscovery, restructuring and invention of collective memory. Within Palestinian society, which has a Muslim majority, the proponents of nationalism use religion as a source of authority to shape the perception of bereavement as an element of the collective memory. Accordingly, politi-religization is a manipulative process in which the agents of nationalism make use of certain parts of the Islamic religion to promote and serve political aims – including liberation from the Israeli occupation. This is the first component in the “engineering of bereavement.” It is what makes it possible for Palestinian parents to take pride in their sacrifice for the sake of the national ideals and aspirations as parents of a martyr, Masarwi writes.

Continued exclusion

Demarcating the boundaries of the Palestinian struggle, Masarwi takes Israel’s conquest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967 as the start of the Palestinian people’s struggle to achieve control of its land and fate. The reason 1967 is such a crucial date is that after the Six-Day War, the pan-Arab national outlook underwent a crisis that led to a regression in the national approach, on the one hand, and on the other, a heightened influence of religious movements.

The concept of the “shahid” derives from the Islamic notion of self-sacrifice for the deity or to forge a historic national ethos. In the past, the shahid was considered to be one who sacrifices himself for Allah, whereas today he does so for the sake of the revolution. Artists and intellectuals who made reference to the rite of Palestinian sacrifice did not always look on it favorably. Indeed, they were often highly critical of the practice, as in Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “The Offering,” written during the second intifada in 2001, which Masarwi quotes in the book: “And we were carpenters with a talent for / Fashioning the cross”; and, later in the poem, “That the high priests / May carry on with their occupation. And [you will] be a hidden apparition” (translation: Nur Elmessiri).

Masarwi examines the approach to bereavement from a gender perspective, too. Her study shows that in Palestinian society, as in every society, national struggles and nationalism are forged and shaped in the male arena and are controlled by the male discourse. On the basis of the testimonies and observed situation of Palestinian mothers today, Masarwi concludes that neither their ideological and demographic role, nor their sacrifice, brought about a change in their status. On the contrary: the process of their exclusion from the political arena and from loci of decision-making continues apace.

Having to meet the expectations of the men, they experience dual oppression. On the one hand, society nails them into their traditional role as bereaved mothers – a role fraught with symbolism replete with elements to create a national ethos. But at the same time, it prevents them, as mothers of martyrs, from expressing their grief publicly and instead enjoins them to demonstrate joy.

Not by chance, this behavior recalls the Israeli notion of “We came to strengthen, and we emerged strengthened,” whose subtext is that it is unfitting for a bereaved parent to show signs of weakness or pain. The experience of bereaved Palestinian mothers, Masarwi writes, is one of failure for not having protected their son’s life, amid consolation that resides in the religious belief that he has gained eternal life in paradise.

Suicide bombers are left out of this discussion of Palestinian bereavement, as they are unlike regular shahids from several points of view. According to Masarwi, the cultural, social and religious elements of attacks by suicide bombers differ crucially from the type of loss and bereavement that she is dealing with in her book (“parents who lost their children in the wake of violent activity in the Palestinian political struggle”). The suicide bomber phenomenon is a controversial one in Palestinian society, and is also the subject of religious disagreement in the Arab world in general, and the Islamic world in particular.

Drawing comparisons, in various contexts, between the elements of Palestinian and Israeli bereavement, Masarwi argues that “the Israeli model [of bereavement] exercised an influence on the Palestinian model.” It is not illogical to conclude from the book that despite the singular features of Palestinian mourning and bereavement, what stands out in the end is the human, universal similarity. Indeed, at many points in the book, the terms “Palestinians” and “Israelis” seem to be interchangeable, thus only heightening the feeling of pointlessness of the mutual killing.

Edna Shemesh is a writer, translator and book reviewer. Her latest Hebrew novel, “Hotel Malta,” was published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad.