This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #391 with Mohammed El-Kurd. The timestamps in the transcript are clickable links that take you directly to that point in the main video. Please note that the transcript is human generated, and may have errors. Here are some useful links:
Table of Contents
Here are the loose “chapters” in the conversation. Click link to jump approximately to that part in the transcript:
- 0:00 – Introduction
- 2:18 – Palestine
- 26:47 – Hate
- 40:18 – Antisemitism
- 48:14 – Peace in the Middle East
- 55:11 – West Bank
- 1:05:20 – Hamas
- 1:15:08 – Two-state solution
- 1:30:58 – Jerusalem
- 1:37:41 – Role of the US
- 1:39:31 – Ghassan Kanafani
- 1:50:16 – 2024 Elections
- 1:51:25 – Poetry
- 2:00:45 – Language
- 2:09:14 – Hope
Mohammed el-Kurd Regardless of whatever was written in these books that were written thousands and thousands of years ago, the fact of the matter is no one has a right to go on slaughtering people, removing them from their homes and then continuing to live in their homes, continuing to drink coffee on their balconies decades and decades later, with no shame, with no introspection, with no reflection. No one has the right to do that. No one has the right to keep an entire population of people in a cage, which is what’s happening to people in the West Bank who have no freedom of movement, which is what’s happening in Gaza, which is blockaded to water, air, and land, and is deemed uninhabitable by human rights organizations like the UN. No one has a right to do that.
Lex Fridman The following is a conversation with Mohammed el-Kurd, a world-renowned Palestinian poet, writer, journalist, and an influential voice speaking out and fighting for the Palestinian cause. He provides a very different perspective on Israel and Palestine than my previous two episodes with Benjamin Netanyahu and Yuval Noah Harari. I hope his story and his words add to your understanding of this part of the world as it did to mine. I’ll continue to have difficult long-form conversations such as these always with empathy and humility but with backbone. And please allow me to briefly comment about criticisms I receive of who I am as an interviewer and a human being. I am not afraid to travel anywhere or challenge anyone face-to-face, even if it puts my life in danger. But I’m also not afraid to be vulnerable, to truly listen, to empathize, to walk a mile in the well-worn shoes of those very different from me. It’s this latter task, not the former one, that is truly the most challenging in conversations and in life, but to me, it is the only way. This is the Lex Fridman podcast. To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, dear friends, here’s Mohammed el-Kurd.
Tell me about Sheikh Jarrah, the neighborhood in East Jerusalem where you grew up.
Mohammed el-Kurd Sheikh Jarrah has, in a way, a typical neighborhood despite the absurd reality that surrounds it. It’s a typical neighborhood in terms of Palestinian neighborhoods. It’s one that is threatened with colonialism, with settler expansion, and with forced expulsion, and it has been that way since the early ’70s. My family, like all of the other families in Sheikh Jarrah, were expelled from their homes in the Nakba in 1948, and they were forced out by the Haganah and other Zionist parallel militaries that later formed the Israeli military, and they were driven to various cities. My grandmother moved to city to city, and she ended up in Sheikh Jarrah in 1956. Sheikh Jarrah was established as a refugee housing unit by the United Nations and by Jordinian government, which had control over that part of Jerusalem at the time. And then people lived there harmoniously. They were all from different parts of Palestine, and they managed to rebuild their lives after the first expulsion.
And then in the ’70s, you had settler organizations, many of whom were registered here in New York and in the United States, claiming our houses and our lands as their own by divine decree. Obviously, because the judges are Israeli and the laws were written by Israeli settlers and the whole judiciary was established atop the rubble of our homes and villages, we had no real pull in the courts. The Israeli courts would look at the Israeli documents, which we argue are falsifies and fabricated, and they would take them at face value without authentication, and they refused to look at our documents. They refused to look at the documents from the Jordanian government, the documents from the UN, the documents from the Ottoman archives. So you already have this kind of asymmetry in the court that, for any person with common sense, would lead you to believe that this is not in fact a legal battle or a real estate dispute, as Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs likes to frame it, but rather a very, very political battle.
One that is about social engineering, one is about demographics, one that is about removing as many Palestinians as possible from occupied Jerusalem. So we did what all Palestinian families in Jerusalem do when they’re faced with this kind of threat, and we bought time. We pleaded and pleaded and appealed the courts and appealed the cases, and we got over 50 expulsion orders. In 2009, rifle-wielding settlers accompanied by police and Israeli military came over and shoved our neighbors outside of their home around 5:00 AM. It was the most brutal, violent thing I’d seen as a child at the time, and I didn’t realize that my turn was coming, my turn was next. They threw them out in the middle of the night with sound bombs and rubber bullets, and they had to live in tents on the street for many, many months and even lived in our front yards for a few months and lived in their cars.
Lex Fridman Can you linger on that process? 2009, you said 50 expulsion orders. What was happening?
Mohammed el-Kurd Between the ’70s and 2009, there had been many, dozens of expulsions orders against us and against many other families in the neighborhood, 28 other family, 28 families in total actually. And in 2008, 2009, the first wave of expulsions finally happened. It actually began with [inaudible 00:06:09] el-Kurd. We’re not related, but we live on the same street in the same neighborhood. She was thrown out of her home. Her husband, an elderly man, also named Mohammed el-Kurd, was pronounced dead on the spot. He had a stroke and died. Israeli soldiers pulled him out of his home while he was urinating and threw him into the streets, and he died. A few months later, Darawi and Hannun families, not a clan, but in Palestine you have sometimes a building that contains multiple brothers and their wives, each have little apartments, Darawi and Hannun family is about 35 people, were thrown out in the middle of the street right across from us.
And then by the end of 2009, I had come home from school to find all of my furniture scattered across the length of the street, and I saw the settlers, many of whom had American accents living in our house. And their justification for this, their reasoning for this is divine decree. This is what God wants. This is the promised land. This is so-and-so, as if God is some kind of real estate agent. So they took over half of our home, and we continued to be in courts for the following decade. I was still a child and I had broken English, and I was talking to all of these diplomats and all of these journalists who would subjugate me, subject me to their racism and biases and so on and so forth. And I had to prove my humanity time and time again. And I had to do all of this, all with broken English. And we were lucky, even if we got a quote in the article written about us by The Times or so on and so forth.
Move forward to 2020, I was in New York City studying a master’s degree, getting a master’s degree. And my father calls me and he tells me, “We have yet another expulsion order,” and we decided to launch a campaign. It was quite ambitious at the time, but the whole objective of the campaign was to demystify what is happening because it’s reported on in the news, it’s reported on around the world as this real estate dispute, as these evictions, which was not really what’s happening. Evictions do not entail a foreign army in an occupied territory, forcibly removing you out of your home. So I came home from New York, and we launched a campaign which turned into a global success.
And I believe it was a global success because, finally, the images on the screen matched the rhetoric that was being said. It wasn’t so confusing or complicated anymore. All of this asymmetry was pronounced and articulated in a way that any of you, be it in Alabama, be it in New York, be it in Egypt, was able to understand the asymmetry of the judicial system and the agenda of colonialism that was taking place here. And due to immense international and diplomatic pressure from all over the world, even the United States, the Israeli Supreme Court was forced to cancel all of the eviction orders in Sheikh Jarrah until further notice. This, I consider, was a small victory because obviously we are still at risk of losing our homes once they decide to do the land registry, which we can get into a little bit later if you’d like.
But nonetheless, it was something that we haven’t seen before. And the fact that the Supreme Court canceled all of these dozens and dozens of fast eviction orders, it set a precedent. And it also proved that this was a political battle, not a legal one.
Lex Fridman So let’s just add a little more detail to the people who are not familiar with the story, with the region, with the evictions, with the courts. So first of all, [inaudible 00:10:07] your eyes in East Jerusalem. Maybe you can say what is Jerusalem, where is it located, what are we talking about in terms of regionally and, second, what kind of people live there. So if you could talk about the Palestinian people. We should also make clear that these evictions is literally people living in homes, and their homes are taken away from them. I suppose technically, it’s legal evictions, but you’re saying that there’s asymmetry of power in the courts where the legal is not so much legal, but is politically and maybe even religiously based.
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, I mean, the most important context here is that oftentimes Americans think that Israel and Palestine are some kind of two neighboring countries that live next to each other, and they are at war. But the fact of the matter is Palestinian cities exist all over the country, and it’s just one country, it’s just one infrastructure, and Israel is literally on top of Palestine. It was established on top of our villages in the late ’40s. Now, according to international law, the eastern part of Jerusalem is under occupation. So Israeli presence and jurisdiction over the area is completely illegitimate. They say the evictions are legal because the settlers write their law, so obviously they’re going to allow settlements to expand. But according to international law, even US policy, Israel occupies the eastern part of Jerusalem. Jurisdiction there is illegitimate. We shouldn’t even be going to their courts in the first place, but we have no other option.
We’re talking about Sheikh Jarrah, we’re talking about Jerusalem, we’re talking about generations and generations and generations of people who have lived there for the longest time, who now, even though… For example, me, I don’t have a citizenship. I’m a resident, a mere resident, I have a blue ID card even though my grandmother and my grandfather were born in Jerusalem, their grandparents were born in Jerusalem, even though we’ve lived there for generations. But Palestinians in Jerusalem, we are not citizens. We’re just mere residents. Same thing with residents of the occupied Syrian Golan. They are not citizens. They are just residents in their own hometowns. This is an important piece, but all of these gets convoluted and lost in translation. I would argue, a lot of the time, it’s dubious, it’s malicious, the fact that these little pieces of context that frame the entire story get lost.
I’ll talk to you about something else. Just 10 minutes across from my neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, there’s another neighborhood called Silwan. And the people in Silwan are also threatened with expulsion, but not through evictions, but through home demolitions. And if you look at American media or Israeli state media, you would read the headlines, “Palestinians living in homes built illegally are going to face… their homes are going to be torn apart.” What these headlines don’t tell you, most of the time, the substance doesn’t tell you that Palestinians seldom ever get building permit applications. In fact, recently, a spokesperson for the Israeli military confirmed that was 95% of building permits applications submitted by Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are rejected by the Israeli authorities.
And to make this even more absurd, the guy, the councilman who is responsible for rejecting and accepting building permit applications, his name is Yonatan Yosef, and he’s an activist in the settler movements and he’s a Jerusalem council member, last week, following the expulsion of Sub Laban family in the old city of Jerusalem, he posted to his official Facebook account, “Nakba now,” demanding a second Nakba, promising another Nakba. He has done so on many occasions, he has chanted with a megaphone, just a few months ago, walking down the street in my neighborhood chanting, “We want Nakba now.” This is a man who has vandalized our murals, who has screamed Islamophobic slurs. This is literally a man in the government making these decisions. And this is similar to Masafer Yatta in the south of Hebron Hills. For those who don’t know, it’s a place in the occupied West Bank where Bedouin and cave dweller Palestinians have lived for generations, they have cultivated the land. And recently, they were expelled from their homes. Over a thousand people were expelled from their remote small villages.
Again, if you’re reading American media, it would say, “Palestinians living in firing zones were removed because they’re living in a military zone.” What these media reports will not tell you that, in the ’80s, the Israeli government purposefully classified many lands in the occupied West Bank as firing zones, as off-limit military zones for the sole purpose of expelling the residents, and this is not some kind of conspiracy theory. This is declassified information that was released from the Israel’s State Archive that was later reported on by our audits. Also, these reports will not tell you that the judge who rules on whether these people continue to live under homes or not is himself a settler in the West Bank. And I’m not even talking about a loose definition of a settler, but according to international law, this is a settler living illegally in an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank. This is the judiciary that we deal with, which is hilarious considering how it’s being reported on in American media recently as some kind of beacon of progress and democracy that new government is trying to undermine.
Lex Fridman So there’s no representation in the courts for the Palestinian people?
Mohammed el-Kurd I mean, we have lawyers, but no, there is no… In fact, for Palestinians with Israeli citizenships for example, there’s over 60 laws that specifically and explicitly discriminates against them.
Lex Fridman So again, it’s technically legal, the evictions and the demolitions.
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, so was Jim Crow was legal also.
Lex Fridman When something is legal, it can also still be wrong.
Mohammed el-Kurd Absolutely. History has shown us time and time again that legality does not necessarily mean morality. The law is a bloodbath in many ways. It has been used and abused to facilitate the most horrendous atrocities. In the case of the Palestinians, the law has served to facilitate and bureaucratize our ethnic cleansing.
Lex Fridman Do you think there’s people, judges, and just people in power in the judiciary that have hate for the Palestinian people?
Mohammed el-Kurd I mean, I’m not really… Yeah, I mean, the easy, simplistic answer is yes, but I don’t really care about the contents of their hearts. What I care about, the policy they enact, where the laws they write and enact are hateful, demolishing a person’s home. So you can have somebody from Long Island, New York who’s fleeing fraud charges, this is the case in my house, live in their front yard, that’s hateful. So I don’t need confirmation. This is something we see a lot actually. Palestinians and people who are pro-Palestine and just people who want to make a difference in how this cause is represented, we often run for the first opportunity to cite an Israeli being hateful. The last Israeli prime minister said that he has killed many Arabs and that he has no qualms with it. Netanyahu has said a slew of racist, hateful things. Jabotinsky, the pioneer of Zionism, Herzl, one of the pioneers of Zionism, all have said horrible, hateful things.
We also cannot wait to cite a confession from a former Israeli soldier who’s guilty conscience is keeping them up at night. And we use all of these confessions or slip ups as evidence to prove that this is a racist country that is enacting racist acts, but we don’t need this because the material proof is on the ground. You see it in the policies that are enacted. You see it in how this regime has behaved for the past 75 years. I don’t need confessions from the likes of Netanyahu to understand that his heart is full of hate.
Lex Fridman So if you could return to 1948 and describe something that you’ve mentioned, the Nakba, which means catastrophe in Arabic. What was this event? What was this displacement and dispossession of Palestinians in 1948?
Mohammed el-Kurd Well, May 15th, 1948 is commemorated every year as the anniversary of the Nakba, but I would even argue anything, this is like a… A very popular idea is that the Nakba did not begin or end in 1948. The ’48 was rather a crystallization of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine. What happened was is that many Zionists paramilitaries that, again, today merged and made the Israeli army, which calls itself the Israeli Defense Forces even though they’re literally always the aggressor, committed atrocities and massacres, and they destroyed over 500 villages, they killed over 15,000 people, they forced a very large portion, a majority of the Palestinian population to flee their homes. And this was the near total destruction of Palestinian society that continues on to this day. We refer to it as the ongoing Nakba. And you see it in Sheikh Jarrah, you see it in Silwan, you see it in Harran, and all of these people losing their homes.
In many cases, time and time again, I grew up and my grandmother told me the stories about the Nakba. She told me stories about her neighbors who were running away in a panic, and they had mistaken a pillow for their offspring and they just took it with them. And they realized later that they forgot their child and they came back for it. Many, many people who were separated from their… My grandmother herself, she lost her husband for a few months, for nine months. He wasn’t imprisoned by the Israelis. She told me all of these stories, and she wasn’t just reminiscing about them. She was letting me know that this is still happening and I didn’t need to grow up that old to see it happening in my own front yard, to see that expulsion happen in the same fashion. She’s talked about it.
But now they have replaced their artillery with the judiciary. They have replaced the slashing of the pregnant women’s bellies in the Deir Yassin massacre with laws that say, “You’re not legally allowed to be here. We’re going to kick you out of your home,” and it’s happening, and it has happened in broad daylight. One piece of context for the listener who is not familiar with the Nakba is the Balfour Declaration, which was a promise, quote-unquote, “promise” made by the British to the Zionist movement in 1917, committing to the establishment. I’m quoting, I think word for word, “committing to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine”, as if Palestine was the British to give away. And there was this whole movement that called for colonization of Palestine.
And there were different schools of thought in Zionism. People like Zangwill said that this was a country without a people, and Palestinians who have existed there, who have cultivated the lands, who had diverse cultural and religious and political practices, they were completely erased. And other people like Jabotinsky were a lot more explicit and a lot more honest and said that, “We need to fight the Palestinians because they loved their land, much like the Red Indians loved their lands,” and he had a paper called the Iron Wall: Colonization of Palestine Must Go Forward. And all of these schools of thoughts were then shopping around for imperial support for their cause. They tried to get support from the Ottoman Empire, they tried to get support from Germany, this is in the 1800s, and then they got support from the United Kingdom. A great book to recommend is The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi, traces the Zionist movement, oftentimes in the Zionists’ own words.
So today what we’re seeing is a continuation. And people like Jabotinsky, who are profoundly and explicitly racist, who have called for genocide, who have called the Palestinians barbaric, who have said and done racist things… Jabotinsky also was the founder of the Irgun, one of the other militias that later merged to become the Israeli army, which was responsible for the Deir Yassin massacre, which was responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel, this is a person who is still celebrated in Israeli society. There are streets named after him, and Netanyahu just two weeks ago, if I’m not mistaken, honored him in a public celebration. So this is Zionism. It’s not even through my own words.
Lex Fridman What do you say to people that describe Israel as having historical right to the land, so if you stretch, not across decades, but across centuries into the past?
Mohammed el-Kurd This kind of thing is a red herring. It’s a distraction because you don’t think of any state as having rights. But there is this exceptionalism to the Israeli regime where it has a right to defend itself, and it has a right to the land, and it has a right to shoot 14-year-old boys because it thought they had a knife in their pockets. A lot of the time, people cite the Torah and cite religious books. Sometimes Zionist will even say like, “Read the Quran, and blah, blah, blah.”
Regardless of whatever was written in these books that were written thousands and thousands of years ago, the fact of the matter is no one has a right to go on slaughtering people, removing them from their homes and then continuing to live in their homes, continuing to drink coffee on their balconies decades and decades later with no shame, with no introspection, with no reflection. No one has the right to do that. No one has the right to keep an entire population of people in a cage, which is what’s happening to people in the West Bank who have no freedom of movement, which is what’s happening in Gaza, which is blockaded to water, air, and land, and is deemed uninhabitable by human rights organizations like the UN. No one has a right to do that.
Lex Fridman Do you have hate in your heart for Israel?
Mohammed el-Kurd Why does that matter?
Lex Fridman As one human being to another, you’re describing quite brilliantly that the contents of people’s hearts don’t matter as much as the policies and the contents of the courts and the laws and what actually is going on on the streets in terms of actions, but this is also a human story. I feel like, at the core of the situation here is hate or maybe inability for some group of humans to see the humanity in another group of humans. So it’s important here to talk about the contents of hearts, if we were to think about the long-term future of this.
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, I mean, I would be concerned actually if I didn’t feel some kind of way in my heart. I would be concerned for my own dignity. Because the people who revolt, the people who are angry, the people who refuse to live under occupation know that they deserve better. People start revolutions not because of some kind of cultural phenomenon, not because of some kind of desire, but because they cannot breathe, because they cannot breathe, they cannot live. They are living under excruciating circumstances. Palestinians, I don’t know, I don’t know how many Palestinians I’ve interacted with, but we are some of the most wonderful people. I mean, not all of us, I think some of us are insufferable, but most of us. Most of us, we’re very, very hospitable. We’re very hospitable. Even in the early correspondence between the mayor of Jerusalem and Herzl, who wrote The Jewish State, the generosity through which the Palestinian mayor was talking to Herzl, who was plotting to take over his land, is impressive and, at the same time, heart-wrenching. But I personally think there’s a lot of dignity in negating your oppressor. And I think it would be ridiculous today if we look back at Jim Crow, for example, and we ask the person who’s lived under Jim Crow if they have hate in their heart for Jim Crow, as if that’s not the absolutely logical and natural sentiment to feel.
Lex Fridman In Rifqa, you wrote, my father told me, “Anger is a luxury we cannot afford. Be composed, calm, still, laugh when they ask you, smile when they talk, answer them, educate them.” So let me linger on this. Is there anger in there, in your heart? And does it cloud your judgment?
Mohammed el-Kurd Does it cloud my judgment? I don’t think so. I think our campaign to defend our homes was particularly successful because it was honest to what was happening on the ground, because it refused to follow the strategy that we have used in our advocacy before, where we shrink ourselves and we turn the other cheek and we try to convince American lawmakers and American diplomats and journalists of our humanity because we wait for their approval. I was 14 years old when I first flew to Congress to speak to Congress people and to speak at the European Parliament. At the time, I thought, “Wow, I must be such a brilliant 14-year-old for them to have me here.” Looking back, I didn’t know what I was talking about. I had horrendously broken English, and I didn’t have any talking points. And I came to realize that the reason why we send our kids with their PowerPoints to the hill is because of the racism and the hatred that lingers inside the hearts of American politicians who refuse to sit on the table with Palestinian adults as equals.
And so we resort to sending our kids who will not threaten and who will not trigger the biases they have against Muslims and Arab people, which Palestinians, even though we’re not all Muslim, are racialized as Muslim. And this is why we emphasize the deaths of women and children as though the deaths of our men does not counter, does not matter. All of these things I think the new generation of Palestinians is rebelling against. I think words like… I think it’s loaded, it’s loaded language, anger and angry and hate and so on and so forth, because it mischaracterizes people and it kind of delegitimizes them a little bit.
I think the real anger is the bulldozer bulldozing through my house. I think the real anger is the 18-year-old soldier who refuses to see me as a human being and strip searches me every chance they get. That’s where the real anger lies. And I’m quite honestly proud of our unabashedness and our refusal to bow our heads or bury our heads in the sand. I think that’s the only way forward.
Lex Fridman So anger, or whatever it is, is a fuel for action.
Mohammed el-Kurd Absolutely. And it has been throughout history, it has been.
Lex Fridman How much of this tension is religious in the practical aspects of the courts and the evictions and the demolitions? You mentioned something, divine decree, how much underneath of it do you feel the division over religious text and religious beliefs?
Mohammed el-Kurd It’s convenient to market what’s happening in Palestine as a religious conflict because it allows the listener the luxury of believing that this is an ancient, complicated thing that stretches thousands and thousands of years ago. But the fact of the matter is the people who invented Zionism, who pioneered the Zionist movement, who called for immigration and settling into Palestine, a lot of them were atheists. A lot of them were not religious at all. And the leaders of the Israeli state today, a lot of them are atheists and a lot of them are secular and so on and so forth. It’s easy to say that this is about Muslims and Jews fighting over the land and so on and so forth, but it’s not. It’s about the land itself and it’s about people being forced out of their homes.
Lex Fridman Benjamin Netanyahu said, “Anti Zionism is anti-“
Lex Fridman Benjamin Netanyahu said, “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”
Mohammed el-Kurd Of course he said that.
Lex Fridman Do you disagree?
Mohammed el-Kurd Absolutely, I disagree.
Lex Fridman What’s the gap between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, those who are against the policies of Israel versus those who are against the Jewish people?
Mohammed el-Kurd I watched the first 20 minutes, and then I couldn’t do it anymore, but I watched. And then what was interesting about Netanyahu is that he said, being anti-Zionist is like saying, I’m okay with the Jews, I just don’t believe the Jews have a right to form their own state. That’s like saying, I’m okay with Americans, I’m just not okay with Americans having their own state. And there is so much wrong with that statement in the sense that Jewish people are a religious group and being an American is a nationality that consists of a diversity of religions and so on and so forth, first of all. And the second thing that’s wrong with that statement is the whole idea that states somehow have a right to exist or whatever. It’s such a distraction. You have people getting shot in the street. You have millions and millions of people beseeched, you have people losing their homes. You have people who are held in Israeli prisons without trial or charged indefinitely, but the conversations that are being held on the Hill, the conversation that are being held on CNN are does Israel has a right to exist or why would you negate Israel is having a right to exist? That’s one.
Now, of course, and I just find it’s ridiculous again, that opposing a secular political movement that was explicitly colonialist, expansionist, exclusive and racist through the words of its own authors is somehow… And also again, opposing such a political movement that is quite young and quite recent is somehow equivalent to opposing a religion that is thousands and thousands of years old. But it is convenient again, for Israeli politicians to frame us who oppose Zionism, a form of racism and bigotry, as anti-Semites. But I can guarantee you Benjamin Netanyahu has no problem with anti-Semitism. This is the same man who has no problem getting on stage and shaking hands with Pastor John Hagee, doing web webinars with Pastor John Hagee. For those who don’t know, Pastor John Hagee is the founder of Christians United for Israel, who has said on multiple occasions that Hitler was a hunter who was sent to hunt the Jews. Who said on multiple occasions that Jewish people are going to perish in hell. All of this is verifiable by Google, and this is one of the Israeli regime’s closest allies.
So the Israeli regime does not have a problem with anti-Semites when it serves its interests. It has a problem… If you look at evangelicals or Christian Zionism at large, anti-Semitism lies at the heart of Christian Zionism. It’s the idea that we want to drive all of the Jews outside of the United States so that Armageddon could happen, or whatever the fuck. This accusation has been a muzzle, it has been used as a muzzle to silence political opposition and to stifle political advocacy for the liberation of Palestine. And a lot of the time people get caught up in denouncing it and in justifying themselves and disclaimers and so on and so forth that you lose the point, that you’re distracted from the focal point, that is there is an ongoing colonialism happening where people every single day are killed. I cannot keep count. This morning a kid was shot in Palestine. It’s embarrassing even for me that I don’t even know the numbers here, but this muzzle has been effective and I think the only righteous option is to oppose these labels, these smear campaigns that target us.
I myself have been labeled an anti-Semite by the ADL. And if you want to talk about that at surface level, people will say, wow, the ADL, Anti-Defamation League condemned you. But people do not look at the history of the Anti-Defamation League, do not look at the present of the Anti-Defamation League, the fact that they are the largest non-governmental police training department in the country where they train police in racial profiling and militarism. The fact that they have historically and continued to have engaged in surveillance on Black liberation movements, on anti-Apartheid South African activists. Most recently in Charlottesville, when White supremacists were marching and chanting anti-Semitic shit, the ADL advised local police departments to spy on the Black organizers opposing the White supremacists. This is again, all verifiable on the internet, go to droptheadl.org.
Lex Fridman So the ADL does not alleviate the hate in the world as it probably is designed to do?
Mohammed el-Kurd No. It’s a guise, I don’t think the Apartheid Defense League is really our most progressive…
Lex Fridman That’s what it stands for.
Mohammed el-Kurd In case you didn’t know, now you know.
Lex Fridman If we could just linger on this idea of anti-Semitism, there’s quite a bit of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, especially after 9/11. I’ve spoken to people about that. There’s also anti-Jewish, anti-Semitism sentiment in the United States, but also throughout human history. What do you make about this kind of fact of human nature that people seem to hate Jews throughout history, especially in the 20th century, especially with Nazi Germany? What are your in general thoughts about the hatred of the Jewish people?
Mohammed el-Kurd I think it’s obviously wrong. I don’t know. It’s this idea that I even have to clarify what I think about anti-Semitism that doesn’t sit well with me. I think it’s completely unfortunate and wrong that Jewish people have been persecuted across history.
Lex Fridman So one of the criticisms, I think I read the ADL are making this criticism of you, is maybe you’ve tweeted a comparison between Israel and Hitler, and thereby diminishing the evil that is Hitler. What would you say to that?
Mohammed el-Kurd Amy Cesaire talks about this a lot, the exceptional of Hitler. Hitler is a deplorable, I don’t know, condemnable, rotten racist, horrible human being that belongs in the depths of hell. Obviously that goes without saying, but I’m allowed analogy and I’m allowed to say whatever I want. Now, I don’t necessarily think that that such an analogy is a good strategy to have, but at the time, the context came in 2021 when Israeli soldiers and policemen and settlers were literally burning down our neighborhood, again, verifiable by Google, and I tweeted it. And also, I remember I tweeted something, “I hope every single one of them dies.” And to this day, this is some kind of gotcha for me, as if I should have tweeted like, oh, here’s the apple pie for every single soldier that’s throwing tear gas in my house. There is such an exceptionalism when it comes to Palestinians. We’re not allowed analogy, we’re not allowed expression. We’re not allowed armed resistance, we’re not allowed peaceful resistance. We’re not allowed to boycott because that’s Anti-Semitic. We’re not allowed to do anything, so what are we allowed? If I can’t boycott, and that’s against American law now to boycott, and if I can’t pick up a rifle because that’s against the law, and if I can’t even tweet my frustration out, what am I allowed to do? And maybe Netanyahu can send me a manual with all he’s happy with.
Lex Fridman So you’ve spoken about the taking of homes, the IDF killing civilians, killing children. What about the violence going the other direction, Israelis being killed in part by terrorist action?
Mohammed el-Kurd Well, it depends on how you define terrorism. Across history, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the definition of terrorism. If a foreign army is in my neighborhood, which it’s not supposed to be, and they’re shooting live ammunition at my house, I’m allowed to do what I’m allowed to do. And again, this is yet another case of Palestinian exceptionalism because when it comes to Ukraine, people have no problem seeing Ukrainians defending their homes, seeing Ukrainians dying for their land, seeing Ukrainians making makeshift Molotov on Sky news. Sky News was running Molotov making cocktails. The New York Times ran an article interviewing Ukrainian psychologist who said, I’m paraphrasing, but he said, hatred for all Russians is actually a healthy outlet. The New York Post ran a headline championing, quote unquote, heroic Ukrainian suicide bomber. These things we would not even dream of as Palestinians.
We are told to turn the other cheek time and time again, we’re told that we should continue living inside these enclaves without access to clean water, without access to the right to movement, without access to building permits, without our natural right to expansion, without a guarantee that if we leave our house we’re not going to be shot. And we’re supposed to not do anything about it. That is absurd. Any person watching this understands this completely. People understand that if somebody is attacking your home, you’ll fight back. If somebody is attacking your family, you fight back. That is not… But again, who gets to call who a terrorist? Who gets to define terrorism? This is all about who has power. Who gets to write these laws? Who gets to write these definitions? Why is it that American actions in Iraq is not called terrorism by American politicians? Violence is like this mutating concept, and it takes on many shapes and forms. And if it’s in a uniform, if it speaks in English, if it has blonde hair, it’s somehow acceptable, it’s okay. We make movies about it. We sell out tickets about it, we make games about it. But if it’s without a uniform, it’s if it has a thick accent, if it has a beard, that’s condemnable, that’s wrong, that’s terrorism.
Lex Fridman Do you think violence is an effective method of protest and resistance in general?
Mohammed el-Kurd In general, I think it has been, but I believe in fighting on all fronts. I don’t think violence alone is going to bring about change. I think there’s so much to do in culture and in shifting public opinion, there’s so much to do in media and fighting back against media. Erasure and censorship, there’s so much to do diplomatically and politically, and I think I would be naive if I don’t take the power imbalance into consideration. One side has makeshift weapons and the other side is one of the most sophisticated armies in the world, so I don’t know how effective violence could be in this case.
Lex Fridman But if you look at the flip side, do you see the power of nonviolent resistance? So Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the power of turning the other cheek, you spoke negatively about turning the other cheek.
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah.
Lex Fridman So I sense that doing so has not been effective for the Palestinian people.
Mohammed el-Kurd We’ve turned the other cheek generation after generation. There is this Zionist trope that is used against us. They say, Palestinian rejectionism. They say that we reject everything, but if you look at the history like our leadership, the Palestinian authority has given up inch after inch, has compromised on acre after acre, has signed deal after deal after deal after deal, and still there is no peace. So turning the other cheek is not the most effective method in my book.
Peace in the Middle East
Lex Fridman What are the top obstacles to peaceful coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians?
Mohammed el-Kurd The occupation comes to mind. The [inaudible 00:48:23] policies come to mind. The seeds comes to mind. The asymmetry of the judiciary comes to mind. The whole system needs to be dismantled. I will quote my dear friend Robert Barre, who’s a lawyer who says, “The solution, justice comes about through recognition, return, and redistribution.” There are millions of Palestinian refugees who are living in excruciating circumstances in refugee camps around the world. There are thousands of Palestinian prisoners who are held in prisons for defending their homes, hundreds of which are held without charge or trial by the way. There are many Palestinians who get killed in broad daylight with no recourse, journalists and medics and everyday people, not just the freedom fighters. We need, again, recognition, return and redistribution, and peace comes about when they stop killing us, when they stop keeping us in a cage. That’s quite simple.
Lex Fridman Can you describe recognition, return and redistribution?
Mohammed el-Kurd Return, right of return. The right of return to all of the Palestinian refugees to their homes. When I’m driving around Haifa and I see my grandmother’s home that’s now turned into a restaurant, I made a joke in one of my essays recently that had I had that, I could have had it all. The beachfront views, her smug attitude. She grew up by the sea after she relocated to Haifa after Jerusalem. We want that. And they’re lucky I don’t want Netanyahu’s home, but I just want my home. I just want my home. We want to return. Also, I believe in the 1960s, the Israeli government classified 90% of all of historic Palestine as state-owned land. This is all land that was owned by Palestinian farmers who have cultivated their lands for decades. Since the establishment of the Israeli state, there has been Jewish only towns popping up every few years, and not one town, not one Palestinian town has emerged. Even those of us who have Israeli citizenship who live outside of the wall are encircled and cannot have their natural community growth in their towns, that needs to change.
Lex Fridman You mentioned the wall. Can you describe the wall?
Mohammed el-Kurd The wall is a nine meter high cement wall that was finished in 2003. And if you’re American, you’ve probably heard the whitewash sanitized version of the name, which is the security wall. But it’s the wall that literally has stolen thousands of dunams of land and has ripped apart families. My mother is a poet or was a poet at some point, and she had this poem she published in the paper called Love Behind the Wall. It’s a poem, but it describes the real life situation of two families who lived right across the street from each other, but were then separated by the wall, and they would fly balloons to see each other from each side of the wall or something like that. This, although it sounds absurd, but it’s the reality for many Palestinian families whose lives were torn apart, whose livelihoods also were torn apart by the wall.
Maybe this is a good opportunity to talk about the legal classifications for Palestinians. Israel, much like any other colonial entity, has divided and fragmented the Palestinian people. As I said earlier, I have a blue ID, which means I’m a resident. A friend of mine who lives in Haifa, for example, two hours away from me, 150 kilometers, not nothing too bad in this country, has an Israeli citizenship. He can travel, he can enter the West Bank, he can do a lot more. He’s a citizen, he can vote if he wants to, not that we want to. I always say to my friends, “Oh, you can go to Italy without a visa because you have an Israeli citizenship.” But they battle national eraser. They battle crime in their own communities because of police negligence. They battle land confiscation, and have battled land confiscations in the ’50s.
Whereas somebody with a green ID, somebody from the West Bank cannot leave the West Bank, cannot go anywhere without a special permit and lives behind these walls. The West Bank, I think hilariously George Bush described it as Swiss cheese because of the holes. Every a hundred meters there’s a new settlement or there’s a new military checkpoint. So even if you live behind the wall in the West Bank with your green ID, even though you’re robbed of your right to movement, you still even can’t move from town to town within the West Bank without encountering settler violence or military violence while you’re crossing the checkpoints and so on and so forth.
And then the last category we have is people who live in Gaza, we are talking about over 2 million people who live in an open air prison, who have no right to movement, but also have no access to clean water and no access to supplies, no access to good food, no access to good healthcare, and so on and so forth, who routinely get bombarded every few years. Gaza is two hours away from my house. It feels like an absolute far away planet because it’s so isolated from the rest of the country. So imagine all of these different legal statuses fragmenting your everyday identity, and creating different challenges and obstacles for you to deal with, for each group to deal with. It’s amazing and impressive that despite these colonial barriers, the real cement ones and the barriers in the mind, despite all of these barriers, the Palestinian people have maintained their national identity for 70 years. That is incredibly impressive. And it also sends a message that as long as we have a boot on our neck, we are going to continue fighting. Violence, cracking down on refugee camps, bombarding refugee camps is only going to bring about more violence.
Lex Fridman So West Bank is a large region where a lot of Palestinian people live, and then there are settlements sprinkled throughout, and those settlements have walls around them with security cameras.
Mohammed el-Kurd And security guards.
Lex Fridman Security guards.
Mohammed el-Kurd There’s almost a million settlers in the West Bank.
Lex Fridman And so what are the different cities here, if you can mention?
Mohammed el-Kurd In the West Bank?
Lex Fridman In the West Bank. Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho, Nablus.
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, [inaudible 00:55:38].
Lex Fridman They have their own stories, they have their own histories.
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah. And it’s fascinating also how interconnected they are. Like a friend of mine, Momahari, he recently did a documentary report on the day that Haifa fell during the Zionist invasion, the Hagana led the Palestinian residences of Haifa down to the city center. And as absurd as it sounds, those of them who stood on the right side of the street were forced into cars that took them to multiple stops that would later become multiple refugee camps, the last of which was Jenin refugee camp. And those who stood on the left side of the street were forced to board boats that took them to Lebanon to become refugees there. Last month we saw the Israeli army in invade Jenin in maybe the largest military invasion of Jenin since 2002, and they killed many people. They attacked medics and journalists in broad daylight on camera. They have destroyed infrastructure, and it was all very painful. But I think the most compelling aspect of the raid on Jenin was what followed. Israeli soldiers that night, held their megaphones and instructed hundreds of Palestinians to flee their homes. And they told them, if you don’t leave, if you don’t have your hand up in the air, you will get shot. And they were forced to leave their homes in the camp and walk to God knows where.
I can guarantee you, because the Nakba is not that old, I can guarantee you that some people who were marching away from their camps were chased away from their homes in the camp in Jenin were some of the same people who were chased away from the homes in Haifa in the first place. This perpetual exile that Palestinian people continue to live is unbearable. In my case, my grandmother was removed from her home in Haifa in ’48, and then she moved from city to city. And then in 2009, she saw half of her home taken over by Israeli soldiers. My grandmother died in 2020, and two months later, we got the next expulsion order from the Israeli court. I’m quite ashamed to admit that I was relieved that my grandmother had died, because I did not want her, 103 years old at the time, to go through yet another Nakba. And this is the fact for so many Palestinians, regardless of where they are on the map.
Lex Fridman If I may read the description of the situation in Jenin, and maybe you can comment. So this is on July 3rd, 4th and 5th, just reading the Washington Post’s description. So this was an Israeli military incursion to Jenin, the raid included more than 1000 soldiers backed by drone strikes, making it Israel’s largest such operation in the West Bank since the end of the second Palestinian uprising in 2005. The Israeli military said it dismantled hundreds of explosives, cleared hundreds of weapons, destroyed underground hideouts, and confiscated hundreds of thousands of dollars in quote, terror funds. Many of the 50 Palestinians who have attacked Israelis since the start of the year have come from Jenin camp and the surrounding area. Palestinian attacks inside Israel have killed 24 people this year. UN experts describe the Jenin operation as “collective punishment”, in quotes, for the Palestinian people amounting to egregious violations of international law. Many of the more than 150 Palestinians killed by Israelis this year have also come from these communities. Palestinian fighters say they need arms to defend themselves against the Israeli occupation and military incursions into the camp during which Palestinian civilians including children have been killed. So those are the, I would say, different perspectives on the many people on both sides who have been killed, many more Palestinians. Can you comment more about the situation?
Mohammed el-Kurd I think the Washington Post article is a little bit more careful than other media that came out recently about Jenin. I was listening to our Reuters radio show and they failed to ever mention the occupation. I don’t even think this paragraph mentioned that Jenin is under occupation by the Israeli forces, by the Israeli regime. I think this is the most important piece of context that gets obscured in our media reporting, is these cities, these refugee camps are under illegal occupation. The Israeli army has no business being there in the first place. That is the departure point, that is the most important piece of context that will answer to you why these people are arming themselves. Many of which, by the way, lived through the 2002 massacre and bombardment of Jenin, and grew up in that violence.
The context that Palestine is under occupation, that these Palestinian cities are under occupation, that they have to deal with land seizures at all times, that they cannot leave their towns without a special permit, all of this will give context to the violence. And the thousands of Israeli soldiers that raid the camp that day, that traumatized an entire generation. They think they will quell that generation. They think that with such bloodshed and such barbaric violence, destroying infrastructure, attacking medics, killing people left and right, and they think with this kind of terror that they can quell people, tell people that they can guarantee that these kids are not going to grow up and resist. But that’s the opposite of what happens. One thing about Palestinian people, they will not compromise their dignity. These people live in dire, excruciating circumstances and it is so courageous, in my opinion, that they even think to defend themselves against one of the most lethal, one of the most sophisticated armies in the world, against a nuclear state that can wipe them out in the matter of seconds. But at the end of the day, it’s not even about courage, it’s about survival. They don’t do this because of machismo or because of heroic tendencies, it’s because this is about survival.
Lex Fridman So the degree there’s violence, it’s about survival?
Mohammed el-Kurd Absolutely. I think if there was no occupation, there would be no violence. It’s quite obvious. And again, people understand this. We saw on Twitter in the recent month, all of these Israeli propagandists who had tweeted pictures of little girls with guns in Ukraine and women making bombs in Ukraine, and young men carrying their rifles in Ukraine, and praising them as heroes, post very similar pictures of Palestinians and calling them terrorists. It’s glaring the double standard, I don’t even need to linger on it.
Lex Fridman Well, the double standard is glaring, but I also think the glorification of violence is questionable. There’s a balance to be struck, of course, but…
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, I don’t think we should be glorifying violence at all, but I don’t think we should be normalizing violence either. I think that’s what it is. I’ll tell you a story. I was interviewing a person whose brother was killed by the Israeli military during an Israeli raid on their village, and the person was so concerned about whether I was going to report that her brother allegedly had a Molotov cocktail in his hand. And I found it absolutely insane, absolutely absurd that we can just glance over the fact that there is, again, a foreign military in tanks with rifles and snipers invading the village at 4:00 AM in the morning, shooting live ammunition at people’s houses, throwing tear gas, that we can just glance over. It’s normal, we could just report on it, no problem, nobody’s going to bat an eyebrow. But the fact that potentially somebody might have picked up a Molotov cocktail to throw it at this invading army is where we draw the line. It says a lot. It says a lot about whose violence is normalized, is accepted, is institutionalized, is glorified even. You walk around Tel Aviv and you see all of the plaques plastered around the streets of the country, of the city, celebrating the battles that they had won, the massacres that they had enacted against the Palestinian people, but God forbid Palestinians have any kind of similar sentiment.
Lex Fridman So on July 4th during this intense period, a Palestinian rammed a car into pedestrians at a bus stop in Tel Aviv, injuring eight people before being shot dead by a passerby. Also, that night, Hamas fired rockets into Israel, and then Israel responded with strikes on what it said was an underground weapon site. So just to give some context to the intense violence happening here, what do you think about Hamas firing rockets into Israel?
Mohammed el-Kurd Well, the framing makes it seem as though unprovoked Hamas is firing rockets unto Israel, regards to what I think of Hamas, obviously, but unprovoked. But that’s not the case. The propagation is the fact that they are forced to live in a cage, that they have no access to clean water. They have no access to basic rights, no access to imports, no access to anything, that they can’t leave, they’re living in a densely populated enclave that was deemed uninhabitable by the UN, that was deemed an open air prison. So the rockets, in any case, are retaliation for the siege. Let’s start there. But again, this is just to prove my point, violence begets violence. Palestinian people are not violent people. We are not violent people at the core.
And I think what serves this narrative is Islamophobia, is xenophobia towards Arabs, which I don’t have the luxury to write laws about. By the way, I’m quite frustrated by this. I am preoccupied and the Palestinian people are preoccupied with the material violence that we have to deal with on the day-to-day, the demolitions, the bombings, the imprisonment. That’s what we’re distracted with and busy with that we can’t even talk about the racism, the casual racism, against this anti-Palestinian racism, be it in the media, on social media and diplomatic circles. But all of this racism that has gone unchecked, has not been regulated for decades, allows for these tropes to continue in which Palestinians are promoted as these like barbaric terrorists and the only way we could remedy that situation is by marketing them as these defenseless victims. But the fact of the matter is, it’s not this simplistic. Palestinian people are human beings who should enjoy a full spectrum of humanity, which includes rage, which include…
Mohammed el-Kurd … Vanity, which includes rage, which includes disdain, which includes happiness and joy and laughter, which includes celebration, which includes all of these things, but we’re not allowed this. But we are doing exactly what any people throughout history who have been oppressed, who have been colonized, who have been occupied, have done and continue to do as we see in Ukraine, which is celebrated by mainstream media.
I’m sorry to keep reiterating this point, but at this point, I am quite exhausted by how exceptional Palestine and Palestinian resistance is when the world tells me time and time again that it doesn’t have a problem with violence, it just has a problem with who does that violence.
Lex Fridman Do you, in your mind and in the way you see this region, draw distinction between the people in power versus the regular people? So, you mentioned the Palestinian people, is there something you can comment on, on Hamas and the PLO? Do you see them as fundamentally different from the people? What does Hamas do well, where do they fall short?
Mohammed el-Kurd I think governments, wherever globally, are different from people. No government is a true reflection of its people. I think this is even true in the case of Arab countries that normalize with Israel. In many of the cases they are unelected governments. I think the Palestinian authority continues to fail. I think there are subcontractors of the Israeli regime through their security coordination. And also, I’d like to use this as an opportunity to comment a little bit on the analogy thing.
Not to stray away from the question, but the Palestinian Authority two years ago killed an opposition activist named Nizar Banat. It was a horrendous crime, and I was in Ramallah with the people protesting against the Palestinian Authority. And at some point they had their batons, the Palestinian Authority Police, and they beat us with it. And many of the people in the crowd were liking the Palestinian Authority to Zionism. I think people, this is what people do, when they are confronted by a great evil, they liken it to some other great evil, and this is where the Hitler analogy came from. Again, I don’t think it’s the best strategy moving forward, but I refuse to be criminalized for a little sentence.
Lex Fridman So, to linger on those in power. One of the criticisms towards Hamas and PLO, towards the Israeli Government, at least the current coalition government, is that there’s a lot of incentive to sort of perpetuate violence to maintain power. There’s a hunger for power and maintaining that power amongst the powerful. That’s the way power works. So, is there a worry you have about those in power not having the best interest of its people? So, those in power, the PLO, Hamas, not being incentivized towards peace, towards justice.
Mohammed el-Kurd Looking at the PA’s action today, it tells you a great deal about what they’re interested in and what they’re not interested in. And maybe, yeah, the occupation is in their best interest. And you can infer similar things looking at Hamas, but these two entities virtually have no power, even Hamas.
The context that Hamas is permitted by international law to use armed resistance, blah, blah, blah, does that mean Hamas is equipped to govern Gaza? I don’t think so. Does that mean that people around Palestine necessarily want to live under Hamas rule? In 2006, Hamas was democratically elected. I don’t know if that’s still the case today. There’s a lot to be said, but neither of these entities have any real power in perpetuating… The only body that can flip the switch in all of this equation is the Israelis.
They’re the ones who are keeping people in a cage. They’re the ones who are wrapping the West Bank with a wall. Everything else to me is just secondary, regardless of what I think personally of any of those people. Personally, for me, the world I envision, not just Palestine, the world I envision is a world that goes beyond states, that goes beyond this framing of power, this hierarchy in which some people rule over other people. This whole idea of nation states, be it Israel or any other nation state, it’s futile, it’s not good, it’s exclusive. I think that we can achieve a better world than that.
Lex Fridman Well, how do you do a better world? Actually, if you just linger on that, politically speaking, geopolitically, you have to have representation of the people, you have to have laws, and you have to have leaders and governing bodies that enact those laws and all those kinds of things. You probably need to have militaries to protect the people.
Mohammed el-Kurd Can you not imagine a world without militaries?
Lex Fridman I can imagine it, but we’re not in that world.
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, I’m not saying I have all the answers or a PowerPoint in my pocket with the instructions, but I’m saying the world I’d like to live in is one that transcends borders, is one that does not necessitate militaries, that doesn’t necessitate all of these prisons, all of these walls, all of these racist laws.
Lex Fridman So, you don’t think violence is a fundamental part of human nature that emerges combined with the hunger for power?
Mohammed el-Kurd I do think that both of these things are truly intrinsic to human beings, but I also do think there is a way to move beyond them. I’m not saying I have the answers. I’m tempted to say sway, but…
Lex Fridman You have a hope that there doesn’t have to be war.
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, yeah.
Lex Fridman In the world.
Mohammed el-Kurd Definitely, definitely.
Lex Fridman Well, if we look a little bit more short term, people speak about a one state solution, a two state solution, what is your hope here for this part of the world?
Do you see a possible future with a two state solution, whether it’s for Palestine and Israel? Do you see a one state solution where there is a diversity of different peoples like in the United States and they have equal rights in the courts and everywhere else?
Mohammed el-Kurd I don’t think there’s a geography in which a two state solution is possible. As we said earlier, Swiss cheese, there’s literally settlements all over the West Bank, and I don’t think it’s fair, a two state solution is fair to all of the people whose homes are still in Haifa, in Nazareth, in Jaffa, and so far, and I don’t think it’s fair that I’m going to have to travel to another country to visit my cousin who’s married in Nazareth, for example.
And beyond that, it’s just not possible. I do believe that whatever you want to call it, one state, two state, 48 states, 29 states, whatever you want to call it, refugees need to return, land needs to be given back, wealth needs to be redistributed, and a recognition of the Nakba needs to happen. That is the only way we could move forward.
And regarding whether this is a possible situation for two people to live side by side, let’s ask two questions. Let’s say you lived in a house with a person, your roommate, you just had a roommate who constantly beat the shit out of you, I wonder if you’d want to continue to live with them? That’s one. And let’s try another scenario. Let’s say you live in a house with a roommate who you just absolutely hate, just absolutely oppose their existence as a people, you don’t even give him a key to your apartment. Let’s say now you’re equal partners in the apartment, would you want to live with him? I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll see, time will tell, but I don’t think they want to live with us.
Israelis are quite good, especially Israeli diplomats, they’re quite good at using flowery language about peace and coexistence and so on and so forth, and they’re good with making us seem insane or radical or full of hate and so on and so forth, but the policies speak for themselves. The actions on the ground speak for themselves, and every time there’s an uptick, many of them leave, and I wonder, I would like to see, I wonder what would happen in a own state solution.
Lex Fridman Well, okay, so you’ve spoken eloquently about the injustice of the evictions, the demolitions, the settlements, but can you comment about the difficulty of the security from an Israel perspective when there is a large number of people that want to destroy it? How does Israel exist peacefully, this one state solution?
Mohammed el-Kurd I don’t know, by not shooting a journalist doing her job in the Jenin refugee camp.
Lex Fridman But that doesn’t…
Mohammed el-Kurd By not killing a 14-year-old standing in his front yard? This whole talk about security and security fence and the whole propaganda of the Israeli defense forces and this whole iron wall ideology in which somehow they’re always defending themselves, even though they’re… Netanyahu and the Israeli Government continue to talk about an existential threat, about Iran being an existential threat, even though the Israeli Government is the only body that holds nuclear weapons in the region. They’re the most sophisticated army in the region, and yet they continue hiding behind their fingers and talking about an existential threat and talking about how they’re insecure and so on and so forth.
I came here on the bus. I live in a house where everybody in the world can easily Google it and get its address, and anybody can just walk into my house. And I’m lucky and privileged as a Palestinian journalist. There are many Palestinian journalists who lose their lives. That’s real insecurity, but we don’t even have time to whine about it because there’s real shit going on the ground that we’re preoccupied with and reporting on all the time, that we don’t even have the time to talk about how limited is our institutional backing, how limited is our cyber security, how limited is even healthcare. All of these things we don’t even have time to complain about, but they’re the real life things that formulate an insecure population that Israel certainly does not suffer from.
Lex Fridman There’s a tension here. It’s true that the ideas of existential threats to a nation have been used to expand the military industrial complex and to limit the rights of its people. So, in the United States, after 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan were invaded under some justification of there being terror in the world, these big ideas. And in the same way, yes, Israel, with the existential threat of Iran has used to expand its military might over the region and control over the region, but it also has some truth to it in terms of the threat that Israel is facing, including from Iran. If Iran were to get a nuclear weapon, do you think there’s a threat from that?
Mohammed el-Kurd But who has the nukes?
Lex Fridman Right now.
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, but we’re talking about this far away monster that we’re scared of, it’s like fear-mongering. What do you mean, who has the nukes?
Lex Fridman Some of it is fear-mongering, but some of it is true.
Mohammed el-Kurd I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think it’s true. I think Israelis are obsessed with genocide because they have enacted genocide against us. Even when we talk about a future, a liberation of Palestine, when we’re talking about anything, they constantly jump to saying things like, “They want to throw us into the sea. They want to kill all Jews.” What kind of hyperbolic bullshit is that? To say that if I am chanting and marching for my home not to be taken away from me by some kind of settler court, I am somehow demanding the murder of all Jews across the world? That is hyperbolic, and the fact that we coddle it is insane to me.
So no, I don’t think as things stand right now, as the power of balance stands right now, I don’t think there’s an existential threat to Israel. And also, let’s redefine existential threat. Do we think the Israeli regime, the Zionist regime should continue to exist in its forms, subjugating people, enacting the crime of Apartheid according to a bajillion human rights organizations? Do we think that it should continue keeping people in a cage? If that’s what people are fighting to save, then that says a lot about the people who are feeling this existential threat, not me.
Lex Fridman Do your beliefs represent the Palestinian people, meaning, how many people are there that want Israel to be gone?
Mohammed el-Kurd Well, what does it mean for Israel to be gone?
Lex Fridman What it means is for people who think of Israel as an occupier, who stole land that needs to go away, that this should be all Palestine.
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, but is that a bad thing for the occupation to end, for the land to be given back? Is that a bad thing?
Lex Fridman Well, there’s different definitions of occupation. There’s people in their homes now, right?
Mohammed el-Kurd But is it their home? I’m not talking about some random home, but there are many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many Israelis who drink their coffee every morning from living rooms that are not theirs.
Lex Fridman That are not theirs, that were taken just a few decades ago?
Mohammed el-Kurd Where the rightful owners of these homes are still lingering in refugee camps, are still dreaming of return.
Lex Fridman There are homes on the land of Israel that you wouldn’t classify as stolen.
Mohammed el-Kurd I mean, if it was built, but is the land stolen? But all of this, again, I try not to fall into this because it feels so abstract and far away, and this is not how liberation is going to look like whatsoever. And I’m not fixated on ethnic cleansing, I’m not obsessed with ethnic cleansing. I’m obsessed with ending the ethnic cleansing campaign that has been visited upon me and my family and my community for seven plus decades. That’s what I’m obsessed with.
All of this other stuff about what happens to the settlers, and we want to kill all Jews and all of this, I think it’s bullshit, and I think it’s ridiculous, and I think fixating on it is distracting from the focal point. There needs to be an end to all of the injustices, to all of the atrocities. A little boy from Jerusalem should be able to go jog around the city without fearing getting shot. That’s the simplest thing we’re asking for here, and we want our land back, and those things do not mean actually at all the ethnic cleansing of another people.
Lex Fridman Well, we should be precise here. So, a little boy being able to run around Jerusalem, that’s a great vision, not just safely, but without racism, without hate. That’s a beautiful vision, yes, but people in West Jerusalem, people in Tel Aviv that have homes, should they stay there? Do they have the right to stay there?
Mohammed el-Kurd That’s maybe number 99 on my priorities list. I’m concerned with the refugees, I’m concerned with the teenagers in the prisons. I am concerned with my house. I’m concerned with my family’s house in Haifa. There is a lot for me to do before I can even tend to the needs of my occupier, that is the least of my concerns.
Lex Fridman So you want the low hanging fruit, the obvious injustices to end?
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah.
Lex Fridman But still the long term vision of existential survival of Israel, which is the concern of its government, is the concern of its people, do you see a future where Israelis have a home in the region?
Mohammed el-Kurd Sure, just not in my front yard.
Lex Fridman Where’s the front yard and where is the backyard?
Mohammed el-Kurd There are literally Jewish settlers, one of which from Long Island, in my literal front yard. And this is the case in hundreds if not thousands of Palestinian homes. No one is saying Jewish people shouldn’t exist or they shouldn’t have a state of their own. I mean, I think all religious based states are a bad idea, all nation states are a bad idea, but whatever, if that’s what they want do, that’s what they want to do.
But that doesn’t mean that they are allowed or have a right to create and implement a system of Jewish supremacy at my expense. That’s not a crazy thing to say. That is not a controversial thing to say. You can have your state, just don’t kill anyone. Thank you, have a good day. That’s not a crazy thought to have.
Lex Fridman And seek and establish a symmetry of power in the courts, which is the current source of injustice.
Mohammed el-Kurd I mean, that’s when it comes to forced expulsions in our home, but there’s myriad of other ways.
Lex Fridman To the military?
Mohammed el-Kurd The military, I mean, the police. If you look at how many times, I should have brought the data with me, but if you look at how little times the Israeli Military or police has investigated its own people or indicted its own people. I mean, just recently, the killer, who has been hailed a hero by some of Israeli society who killed Eyad al-Halaq, a Palestinian man who is autistic, who lives inside the occupied old city, where again, Israeli Military has no business being there or jurisdiction whatsoever.
He was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier who was trigger-happy because, again, they have this siege mentality where any moving object is going to kill them. And he was shot and killed and despite it being in broad daylight, despite it being well-documented, despite the victim being disabled, despite all of this, he was acquitted by the Israeli court. The military, the courts, the government, they all work together, which is why it’s so ironic to me that there are hundreds of thousands of people marching on the streets of Tel Aviv trying to save the progressive beacon that is the Israeli Supreme Court when you find its fingerprints all over the injustices perpetuated against Palestinians, be it legalizing and upholding the withholding of slain Palestinian bodies who were killed by the Israeli Military to be used as bargaining chips with Israeli militaries.
Be it making decisions to dispossesses entire villages like [inaudible 01:29:42], be it never once granting release to any Palestinian who was held in administrative detention without charge or trial. Be it upholding the legality of the Family Reunification Law that does not allow Palestinian couples who hold different legal statuses of reuniting and living together as families. I mean, those are just some of the few things I can think of about the Israeli Supreme Court.
So, the real tension that exists is the lack of diversity on the Israeli political spectrum that makes the vision for a future so limited, because those on, what seems to be, the far left, are defending an extremely conservative institution that is a supreme court that they regard as progressive, when in fact it is the opposite of such. So, what do we do? How can we talk? How can we have peace with people who are chanting to save the very body that is displacing us? It’s ridiculous.
Lex Fridman What’s your vision? Let’s just take it as a microcosm of Jerusalem, what’s your vision for Jerusalem look like with a peaceful coexistence of people?
Mohammed el-Kurd As it looked like before the Israeli State emerged. I mean, we should be reading our history here. When you read European and white historians, they’ll tell you Palestine was there, and many of them would say it was even without a people, nobody was there, or some of them will say we we’re uncivilized. But the fact of the matter is Palestine, Jerusalem particularly, had a diversity of religion, Druze, Jewish people.
My grandmother continues to talk about… Well, she continued until she died, she continued to talk about her Jewish neighbors when she grew up in the old city. Well, when she was born in the old city and then her Jewish neighbors in Haifa. We even had one Jewish member of her family, [inaudible 01:31:59] actually, who just also recently passed away there. Jews were a part of Palestine, and they spoke Hebrew, a different kind of Hebrew, but they spoke Hebrew and they were… People really need to read The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, it’s really an excellent synopsis of the history.
But this whole idea, that this is some kind of war between two religions is so misleading, because what’s happening is a bunch of frankly European settlers with a certain political secular ideology came and relocated here and turned it into a religious conflict between people who have lived harmoniously together for decades before that.
And the whole idea, be it Christian Zionism or John Hagee, or the calls for Jews to leave the United States and relocate in Israel. Or recently, which we’ve heard about a long time ago, but recently an Israeli historian confirmed the fact that Israeli organizations were bombing Baghdad and bombing synagogues in Baghdad in Iraq to get Iraqi Jews to leave and come relocate in Israel. All of this is manufactured, and again, none of this is a conspiracy theory, I know it sounds absurd, and anytime I look at my life from a bird’s eye view, I think, “What a circus.” But it’s real and it’s verifiable, call the fact-checkers.
Lex Fridman You mentioned the land registry, can you elaborate what’s happening there?
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, our small victory in the Israeli courts was that they would keep us in our homes until a land registry is completed. Basically, it means that they have to check who owned the land prior, and then they could decide if the land is ours or the land belongs to the Israeli settler organizations that are headquartered in the United States and enjoy a tax-exempt status here.
And that sounds great on the surface, but then you look at Israeli law, you look at Israeli courts, you look at ownership and you see that, oh, Israelis refuse to authenticate or take into consideration any land ownership documents prior of the establishment of the state. So all of us in Jerusalem who have their taboo papers, their ownership papers from the Ottoman era, that’s not legit in the eyes of the Israeli court, because your ownership deeds existed long before Israel even existed, so we’re not going to take this into consideration.
So, not to be cynical here, but unfortunately the likely result of the land registry is that they’re going to say, “Oh, all of this land belongs to these Jewish organizations,” because they’re not going to take any of our documents into consideration. But that means that there’s going to be another campaign and there’s going to be a long-winded fight, and we’ll see what happens. But that’s the fear, and there’s a huge dreadful fear of a massive loss in property in Jerusalem following this land registry for the reasons I just told you. It’s the mere fact that they just refuse to look at land ownership documents.
Lex Fridman What is the process of the fighting this in the courts look like? If you can maybe just comment on it.
Mohammed el-Kurd I always make a joke that being in an Israeli court is playing a game of broken telephone because everybody’s speaking in Hebrew, and then your lawyer says something to your dad, and your dad says something to your mom, and your mom whispers it in your ear, and then you say it to your cousin and your cousin has a completely different idea of the verdict than what the verdict is, but that’s really the reality.
Lex Fridman So a lot of the fights happen family by family?
Mohammed el-Kurd No, it’s groups. So, in our case, it’s four houses, every four houses, but again, it happens in a language we do not speak, and a lot of the time our strategy is buying time and building a global campaign. We know that there is no recourse in the Israeli courts. I mean, my grandmother used to say, and this is a popular proverb, “If your enemy is the judge, to whom do you complain?”
Lex Fridman So, to the whom you complain is maybe the international community?
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah. I mean, in our case, it was the international community, but in our case also, it wasn’t just the international community, it was the hundreds of thousands of people in Palestine and abroad who were marching on the streets getting beaten and brutalized in Jerusalem, and I don’t know, sometimes arrested in places like Germany and so on and so forth, who forced themselves inside the media cycle.
This was what was unique about [inaudible 01:36:50]. We were able to penetrate an industry that usually ignores us and usually refuses to use any of our framing, any of our quotations, and these people that march, these people that spread the rhetoric, spread the facts, wrote articles, these people that made videos online and got arrested, and many of whom are still in Israeli prisons paying higher prices than I have ever paid, these people are the ones that truly moved the international community into action.
It wouldn’t have, the United States, I don’t think would said anything had it not been for the immense media pressure that was created from the immense popular pressure. There are a lot of moving parts to a global campaign, and I think it’s so impressive that we were able to do this without any media backing, without any institutional backing, without any training, without any budget, nothing.
Role of the US
Lex Fridman You mentioned the United States. What’s the role of the United States in the struggle that you’ve been describing? What’s the positive, what’s the negative?
Mohammed el-Kurd The role is perpetuating what’s happening. It’s all a negative role, to be honest.
Lex Fridman With the money, with power?
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, it’s like the 3.8 billion in military aid every year, it’s the standing ovation.
Lex Fridman Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aids since World War II. To date the United States has provided Israel $158 billion, as you said, is providing currently 3.8 billion every year, that a lot of people raise the question of what’s the interest of tax paying American citizens in this kind of…
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, zero interest.
Lex Fridman Foreign aid.
Mohammed el-Kurd Zero interest. I think a lot of Americans are concerned with healthcare, a lot of Americans are concerned with clean water and flint. I don’t think they’re concerned with funding Apartheid in another country. And I think it’s a disturbing phenomenon that although public opinion in the United States is shifting, I would argue drastically, about Palestine, people in Washington are yet to catch up.
It was only, I think, nine Congress people who boycotted Herzog’s speech in Congress yesterday, and he received standing ovation after standing ovation, after standing ovation, after standing ovation. And I wonder if the everyday American is concerned that many of their politicians are Israel first politicians, are politicians who care more about maintaining a relationship with the Israeli regime, than they care about their own districts.
Lex Fridman You’ve tweeted that 49 years ago, Ghassan Kanafani… Well, you can maybe correct me on the pronunciation, was assassinated. You wrote, “His revolutionary articulations of the Palestinian plight for liberation shook the colonial regime, yet he’s not dead, his ideas remain ever timely and teachable.”
And you also tweeted an excerpt from his writing. “Between 1936 and 1939, the Palestinian Revolutionary Movement suffered a severe setback at the hands of three separate enemies that were to constitute together the principle threat to the nationalist movement in Palestine in all subsequent stages of its struggle. One, the local reactionary leadership, two, the regimes in the Arab states surrounding Palestine, and three, the imperialist-Zionist enemy.” Can you analyze what he means by those three things? The local reactionary leadership, the regimes in the Arab states surrounding Palestine and the imperialist-Zionist enemy? And also, could you comment on him as a person?
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, I mean, Ghassan Kanafani is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant writer, and he was prolific. He’s authored so much books, even though he was assassinated in the 70s, but he was 37, if I’m not mistaken, 35 when he was assassinated. He was inspiration to me in school, and I remember even my teachers had qualms about him because he was a secular person. But I love Ghassan Kanafani. He is a beloved figure in the Palestinian community, and I hope to one day be able to achieve a fraction of what he’s achieved in the terms of shaping a political consciousness for Palestinians and for people in the region.
Lex Fridman Did he classify himself as a politician, as a philosopher, as an activist, do you know?
Mohammed el-Kurd He was a writer, but he was also part of the Palestine Liberation Front, PFLP.
Lex Fridman So he used the words to fight for freedom.
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah, I don’t think he would’ve thought his words were divorced from other forms of struggle, but I think he recognized the importance of culture and shaping culture and shaping public opinion, both in achieving a shift in global stance, and also in achieving-
Mohammed el-Kurd … global stance and also in achieving an awakening in the Palestinian generation as well. There’s a very famous interview of his where he’s talking to, I believe, a British journalist, and the British journalist is asking him, “Why don’t you have talks with the Israelis?” And he says, “What do you mean talks? You mean capitulation? You can’t have a conversation between the sword and the neck?” And I think that really summarizes the values he stood for. Now, to talk about the three things.
Lex Fridman Local reactionary leadership, regimes in the Arab states surrounding Palestine, and the imperialist Zionist enemy.
Mohammed el-Kurd In today’s terms, the local reactionary leadership is the Palestinian Authority. The regional regimes, we’re talking about, actually, the normalization deals that have emerged in recent years, the Abrahamic Accords, have been talked about as though they’re groundbreaking, new phenomenon. But many Arab countries have normalized relations with the Israeli regime since the birth of the state. It’s not a new thing. But, yes, I think he was talking about Egypt and Jordan at the time. Today, we can include United Arab Emirates. We could include Bahrain. We could include Morocco. And, again, these Abrahamic Accords, they are promoted and marketed and talked about as some kind of religious reconciliation, which I think is the most disgusting thing ever, because they’re not about religious reconciliation. They’re about arms deals and economic deals and they’re about consolidating power in the region.
They’re about mutual strategic interests that all of these nations have together, and some people argue that Palestine is no longer an Arab cause because Arab countries are normalizing. But most of these governments, if not all, actually, all these governments that have normalized, most of them are monarchies, are not elected governments, and they do not represent the will of the people or the desires or the opinions of their peoples. And the proof to this is places like Jordan and Egypt. Even though they’ve normalized and had peace agreements with Israel for many, many, many, many years, Palestine and the Palestinian cause was still a talking point in the political campaigning of politicians, Jordanian and Egyptian politicians, and continues to be for them to gain popularity because that’s where the hearts of the people are. And then the Zionist regime is quite explanatory, the imperial Zionist regime. I mean, what else do you call a regime that sought help from imperialist powers to depopulate an entire country and build a new one on top of it.
Lex Fridman So, mostly, you’re saying the thing that the Abraham Accords achieved is a negative thing for Palestine? So these kinds of agreements between the leadership is not positive for the region?
Mohammed el-Kurd No. No. Obviously, they’re going to be marketed as positive, and, obviously, they’re going to have this flowery language surrounding them. And the idiots in the room might like nod and smile, but anybody with critical thinking skills can know that if a people continue to be under occupation, there’s nothing positive there. And, also, let’s linger a little bit on the mutual interests. The only way Morocco could normalize relations with the Israeli regime is so that the Israeli regime could recognize Moroccan sovereignty over in the Western Sahara, which just happened actually last week. And before that, Morocco recognized Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. It’s not like Morocco itself has no interest in this kind of deal.
Lex Fridman You mentioned that you hope of accomplishing some of the things that [inaudible 01:46:31] was able to accomplish. Let me ask you a silly question, perhaps a silly question, do you have interest in running for political office, I hear laughter in the room, to lead in a leadership position in Palestine.
Mohammed el-Kurd Not currently. No. Not at all.
Lex Fridman Let’s see if this ages well.
Mohammed el-Kurd I don’t think there’s a body through which I can run for anything. It’s completely dysfunctional, and also I don’t want to wear a suit all the time.
Lex Fridman Who would want to do that? So from which pedestal or from which stage do you think you can be most effective?
Mohammed el-Kurd I was born and raised in Jerusalem. I speak perfect Arabic. I think my Arabic writing is much superior to my English writing, but I choose to write in English because I think there’s a disparity and there’s a chasm between what is said in Arabic in the street in Palestine and what is said here about Palestinians, both by anti-Palestinian racists and people who are pro-Palestine and advocates for Palestine. And I believe I and a few others from my generation, or many others actually from my generation, are working to fill that chasm. And I also believe that literature, culture, the public sphere, changing the public opinion, changing the narrative is important to affecting policy, to affecting change, affecting material change. I’m not going to go read a poem in front of a checkpoint and watch it catch in flames.
I’m not that delusional about the power of words, but I do think that I have a responsibility and I have a privilege even to have a voice, to have some kind of platform, and if I’m not defining myself, if I’m not talking and representing myself, then other people will define me. And their definitions of the Palestinian people across the few past decades have not been kind or generous to the Palestinian people. That’s one thing. The other thing is I believe in the United States as a front for change. I believe we have a lot more leverage here than we do back home. Again, I believe, and someone said the other day, I can’t remember their name, but someone said “no stone unturned”, I believe in fighting on all fronts. But here, really, I can go protest in front of the Israeli Embassy without getting shot. There’s a lot of work to be done here. There’s a lot of people waking up.
I would even argue that a reckoning is coming in the American public. More and more American people are concerned where their tax money is going or concerned what their politicians are invested in. More and more American people are saying, “Not on our dime,” are saying, “Not today. Not here.” Also, there’s many Palestinians in the diaspora here in the United States and Europe who benefit and could benefit from political education in the English language, because the diaspora across history, the Palestinians diaspora, has been effective in the ’70s and the ’80s and, ever since 2021, there has been a resurgence of the power and influence of the Palestinian diaspora.
Lex Fridman To ask another silly question, since you mentioned the United States, I don’t know if you follow the politics in the United States, but do you have a preference of Presidential candidates in the 2024 election?
Mohammed el-Kurd I do follow.
Lex Fridman Do you follow where each candidate stands on the different policies?
Mohammed el-Kurd I do. I think everybody in the world should be able to vote for American elections, actually. I do follow.
Lex Fridman Because of the influence they have?
Mohammed el-Kurd Yes. Yes. I don’t have a preference whatsoever. I saw Cornel West on CNN. I don’t know if he’s going to go far with his campaign. Cornel West is running with the Green Party and I don’t think he’s going to achieve much success. But I saw him on CNN berating Anderson Cooper and I enjoyed that very much. Wouldn’t mind seeing that on my screen.
Lex Fridman Regularly.
Mohammed el-Kurd Regularly.
Lex Fridman Okay.
Mohammed el-Kurd But don’t really have an opinion about.
Lex Fridman You wrote Rifqa, a book of poetry. How did that come about? Maybe you can tell the story of that book coming to be.
Mohammed el-Kurd I signed the book when I had a lot less visibility in the world. When I didn’t think thousands and thousands and thousands of people would be reading it, I decided to include many poems, which I wrote when I was young. Because it’s a long journey, this book. It’s starts in Jerusalem, it goes to Atlanta, it goes back to Jerusalem, and then it ends in New York. Rifqa is the name of my grandmother and it’s an Arabic name, a Hebrew name, and it means to accompany someone. I wanted to write about displacement in a way that was beyond what we read about in English. Poetry as a medium, I don’t know if I have much faith in it anymore, to be honest. Maybe I’m turned off by it and I’ll revisit it again in a few years, but at the time of writing this book, poetry as a medium, it really was a source of hope and inspiration for me.
My mother was a poet and her and my dad would play this game in the morning. She would read her poems to him and he would guess which lines would be red penciled by the Israeli military censor, because she would submit her poems to the local newspaper, the Kutz Newspaper, and the military censor has to go over it. She would get her poems back with a bunch of words erased and they would laugh about it and blah, blah, blah. So poetry was very much part of my upbringing and, as a Palestinian, when you’re excluded from mainstream spaces, including media and journalism, poetry tends to be a place where you can say what you want to say without repercussions. And I say that I realize that our greatest writer, [inaudible 01:53:22], literally had his car bombed, exploded because of his writings. And recently, [inaudible 01:53:29], a poet, a Palestinian poet with an Israeli citizenship, was imprisoned for a few months for publishing a poem on Facebook in which he said, “Resist, my people. Resist.” So even that is not necessarily true.
But, anyway, it just felt like it’s a place where I could talk and express large ideas in a simplistic way. And the best example I could give you is one of my favorite poets, [inaudible 01:53:54], when the Israeli authorities decided to do the land law, which classified, I believe, 93% of historic Palestine as state owned, and then when they also did the absentee property law, which allows the Israeli government to take over homes that were depopulated from the Palestinian owners, he wrote a poem called God As A Refugee. It’s a sarcastic, sardonic poem in which he goes, “God has become a refugee, sir, so confiscate even the carpet of the mosque and sell the church because it’s his property, and sell our orphans because their father is absent. And do whatever you want.”
It’s a sarcastic poem that was in reaction to these laws, that translated to the everyday Palestinian, to the farmers, to the landowners, what these bureaucratic, complicated laws meant to them, what they meant to their land, and, what effect are these laws going to have on these people’s lands? And that, I think, is the role of poetry that I try to achieve.
Lex Fridman So poetry ultimately prizes the power of words and so the power of the medium of poetry transfers nicely to any medium that celebrates words, I mean, just writing novels, tweeting. You’re also working on a new book, a memoir. What’s the title? What can you say about it?
Mohammed el-Kurd My memoir is bizarre because I’m so young, so it’s not really my memoir, but it’s rather a memoir of the neighborhood in which I grew up. The title, the tentative title, is, A Million States In One, and it’s a nod to how many different realities and universes exist in this tiny one country. And it’s a documentation of the two waves of expulsion in 2009 and 2020 and 2021 and a behind the scenes of the campaign that took place, the diplomatic and media campaign and grassroots campaign that took place, to save our homes. It’s also an exploration of other communities that are threatened with expulsion and other communities who are resisting in their own way, be it in Beita, in Nablus, or South Hebron Hills, in [inaudible 01:56:33], or in Silwan, or in [inaudible 01:56:36], all these communities that are dealing with different forms of expulsion.
And the emphasis that I’m trying to achieve with this book is dignity. I want to write a book about my experiences that is super dignified, that kicks its feet up on the table, and says what it wants unabashedly. Because we are told not only are we going to be victimized, but we are going to be polite in our suffering. I want to reject that completely and I want to lean into the humor of the past few years of my life because I think that’s really what the world needs and what I need to be writing.
Lex Fridman A few questions here, but one of them is about humor. In Rifqa, you wrote, “My mother has always said the most tragic of disasters is those that cause laughter.” What do you think she meant by that?
Mohammed el-Kurd I don’t know. That’s my mom’s saying, but I don’t know, it’s probably a proverb that I first heard from my mom, but it’s [foreign language 01:57:40], the most evil of an atrocity is what makes you laugh. It’s open for interpretation. One school of thought would say, “You should be wary of the things that make you laugh,” but another school of thought would say, “This is a commentary on our natural reactions to tragedies.” In 2012, 2011, something like this, we had a protest, and after the protest, all of the women of the neighborhood were sitting down under the fig tree of our neighborhood, which they always do. And a bunch of soldiers, maybe 40 soldiers, started marching down the street and everybody dispersed and hid in their homes.
But my aunt, who has now passed away, my aunt refused to go home. She wanted to gather her teacups because she really cared about her teacups. I was begging her to go inside and she refused. She was gathering her teacups. A soldier grabbed me and squeezed me between his baton and an electricity pole. It was very excruciatingly painful and traumatizing for me as a child, but it’s also a funny memory, in a way. Despite the pain, despite the trauma that came with it, there’s still something funny about it.
Lex Fridman The absurdity of it.
Mohammed el-Kurd Yeah. It’s dignifying to find humor in these kinds of things. It makes you realize you are not so weak, you are not so powerless. Another thing is, my same aunt, who was super obsessed with cleanliness, would insist on not going to sleep before washing the dishes. And I would always tease her and say, “You’re going to give them the house clean. You can leave it dirty so they have to clean it up.” And these little things, although incredibly absurd and telling of a harrowing reality that our family and many in the neighborhood were living, are also the coping mechanisms that we were using to deal with our everyday reality.
So much in the public framing of Palestinians, be it in media, in novels, in diplomacy, and so on and so forth, is that of the powerless victim, is that of the person who only weeps. Israeli propagandists, for example, will show pictures on Twitter of a house in [inaudible 02:00:18], and they’ll be like, “Look. This house has windows. They’re talking about their BCs, but they have a nice balcony on their house. What are they talking about?” Or they’ll show a video of a supermarket in [inaudible 02:00:31] and they’ll be like, “How come they’re talking about a blockade when they have a supermarket, and blah, blah, blah”, as though the ceiling has been so lowered that we can’t even afford joy anymore or a little supermarket in the neighborhood.
Lex Fridman So as a poet, as a writer, you’ve written a book of poetry and now working on a new book. What can you say about your process of crafting words? I think people listening to this can hear that there’s a poetry to way you speak in English, so somebody that cares about the craftsmanship of words in both English and Arabic, what can you say about your process?
Mohammed el-Kurd It’s a lot more neat than this conversation. I am obsessed with sentences and it takes me a long time to finish a piece of writing. I am a perfectionist.
Lex Fridman Do you edit a lot?
Mohammed el-Kurd I edit all the time and I can’t move on from one sentence until it’s perfect. But I will say, my other writer friends here in New York do not face how easily disrupted my writing is by other news. I’ll pitch a story to my editor about something, for example, and then as I’m writing it, 20 minutes in, some kid was shot and killed by the Israeli military, so I have to say something about it. And then 30 minutes later, as I’m writing it, there’s news about a home demolition in Silwan. There is this relentless onslaught of news that prevents us and deprives us of the ability to analyze, to frame, to think, to conceptualize, to write beyond the current affairs.
We’re stuck in the relentlessness of the occupation that a lot of the time I worry that the things I’m writing are always in reaction to a crime that took place, to a bombing that took place, and so on and so forth. And I think that’s, unfortunately, true for so many Palestinian writers. I would say isolation and stepping away from the news is very important to do, but I don’t do it.
Lex Fridman Okay, so the struggle to find the timeless message in it is an ongoing struggle for you?
Mohammed el-Kurd It’s not even timelessness. It’s timeliness. I think what you write is always timely, because the occupation is ongoing. The struggle is moving beyond the news and tackling more nuances. Because, in Arabic, I can, in Arabic, I can philosophize, I can talk about violence, and I can talk about my complicated relationship with violence. I can complicate and nuance and give things nuance, but, in English, people still do not believe we are under occupation, even though it is an internationally recognized fact that is broadcasted 24/7 through the world’s most watched screens. We’re stuck in a practice of providing facts and figure as in, “Actually, this happened and this person did this, and according to international law, and blah, blah, blah.” We’re stuck in this because the basic truths about our own existence are denied that we don’t even have the luxury of evolving our writing beyond, or at least evolving my writing beyond it. And this is what I’m trying to do with this new book.
Lex Fridman That’s fascinating that in English your brain is more inclined to go towards activism, whereas in Arabic, you have the luxury to be more of a philosopher.
Mohammed el-Kurd I wouldn’t say activism. I would say journalism.
Lex Fridman Journalism.
Mohammed el-Kurd Just making sure disrupting the flow of the sentence to insert a statistic or insert a historical fact that should be implied and should be a household name, but it’s not. I can’t just say “the Nakba”. I have to say, “The Nakba, the 1948 near total destruction of Palestinian society at the hands of Zionist militias that later formed the Israeli military that now terrorizes us today and there’s a three-tier legal system, blah, blah, blah.” I can’t just say, “Nakba”. I have to give all of these explanations, and that’s heartbreaking. And people are out to do better. People are out to do better. It’s not what my literature should be limited to. It’s not what anybody’s literature should be limited to. It’s the job of news reporters to report the news, but a lot of the time they use loaded language, they use a passive voice, they obfuscate facts, and it’s on the shoulders of us, the heavy carrying.
Lex Fridman Would you say the President in the United States does a good or poor job of covering Israel and Palestine?
Mohammed el-Kurd Terrible job. Horrible job. Horrendous job. They don’t do their job, whatsoever.
Lex Fridman What are the biggest failings?
Mohammed el-Kurd Not mentioning that a town is occupied when you’re reporting about an occupied town. Not mentioning that a settlement is illegal or a settler is illegally present in a Palestinian village when you’re reporting on them. Only quoting Israeli officials and only quoting Israeli politicians and police officers and framing your entire analysis with Israeli officials and only interviewing Palestinians when they have been brutalized and victimized physically. Those are some of the issues. There is plenty. And then saying things like “Israel will bomb a hospital in Gaza” and the press will say “a Hamas run hospital” and this negative association with Hamas will remove any sympathy from the reader towards the victims of this hospital bombing. A lot of things. And a lot of them are sinister. I have many friends, many journalist friends, and I’ve seen many journalists online speak about their experiences when talking about Palestine, the censorship that goes on into it.
And I have many journalist friends, some at the New York Times, some they used to be at the Washington Post, who tell me the kinds of battles they had to go through with their editors to let them even utter the word Palestine. And not even on in news pieces, pieces about, let’s say, a Palestinian artist or a Palestinian chef or whatever. There’s a lot that happens behind the scenes that is not reported on because, when it comes to Palestine, the rules and the laws of journalism are bendable. Passive voice is king. Omitting facts is acceptable. Anything goes.
Lex Fridman So you personally, just psychologically, what have been the lowest points in your life, the darkest points?
Mohammed el-Kurd A recent study came out and said that 52% of Palestinians have depression. I would argue that the number is much, much, much higher. I think it would be absurd for someone to live under the conditions we live under and not contemplate many things, many things. Not just suicide, but many, many, many things. And if people were to put themselves in our shoes for just one day, they would understand where all of the rage and all of the resistance is coming from. It’s not an easy life.
Lex Fridman So where do you find the strength?
Mohammed el-Kurd I’m surrounded by good people. I’m surrounded by good people and I don’t even think of it as a strength. I think of this as my obligation. It just feels like the thing I have to do. I don’t need inspiration. I don’t need strength. It’s just my obligation. There is a great travesty taking place in the world and I and a few others have been put in a place where we’re able to talk about it to a few more people. It’s just my obligation. I have to do it.
Lex Fridman What gives you hope about the future of Palestine?
Mohammed el-Kurd What gives me hope about the future of Palestine is taking a look at history and understanding that across history there has not been an injustice that lingered endlessly. Everything comes to an end. There’s not necessarily a perfect resolution for everything, but nothing continues in the form that it started in, and the occupation and colonialism and Palestine and Zionism, all of these things, are not at all sustainable whatsoever taking a look at history. A lot of what I’m saying today and what I have said in your podcast, many people would’ve would be pearl-clutching hearing me say what I say. But I always try to remind myself that during Jim Crow, during slavery, during the Holocaust, during the occupation of Algeria, during any point of colonialism in the African continent, people did not possess the moral clarity they possess today when they talk about these things. And all of these things were contested and controversial and in many, many, many cases legal and, today, they are deplorable, condemnable, and people say “never again” and they don’t remember them. So that’s what gives me hope, is believing in the inevitability of justice.
Lex Fridman What do you love most about Palestine? What are maybe little things that you remember from your childhood, from your life there in East Jerusalem and elsewhere that just brings a smile to your face?
Mohammed el-Kurd I think just the unabashed-ness of Palestinians. We’re a people who are told and at some point were told by the large majority of the world that we should shrink ourselves, that we should be ashamed of who we are, that we are monsters, that we are terrorists, that we are, blah, blah, blah. And Palestinian people don’t really give a shit. They’re continuing to live as they do. They continue to resist. They continue to write. They continue to do all that they do, and I love that the most. And I love our ability to laugh more than anything else. One thing that’s misunderstood in American culture about Palestinian culture or just Western culture in general is martyrdom culture. A lot of the time people will broadcast images of Palestinian women cheering when their sons have been killed by the Israeli forces and they’ll say, “These people glorify death and these people are eager to have sex with 70 virgins in heaven”, and so on and so forth.
But that’s not the case. The whole idea of the occupation, when they are killing our children, the whole idea is that they’re trained to break our spirits. These mothers, whose hearts are broken, who are anguished, who are so in so much pain when they are cheering, they are not celebrating, they’re not cheering. They are letting the occupier know that, “You have not broken my spirit. I have not yet been defeated.” And I think that is beautiful. It’s the same thing with our prison culture. Palestinians are fascinating in the sense that Palestinians go to prison and they study and they come out with degrees. They can find ways to participate in civil society. They can even smuggle sperm from prison to give a life outside of it because in their philosophy of prisons, they understand that these structures, these buildings were built to break your spirits. So what do you?
You don’t allow it to break your spirits. You resist it. You continue to hold onto life. You continue to hold on to your love of life. You continue to hold on to your love of freedom and you come out of prison and you’re celebrated by your community. The prison has not broken your spirit. All of these structures and system that is the Zionist movement has put into place, be it the shoot-to-kill policies or the prisons or the demolishing our homes that were meant to kill our spirits, they don’t. You demolish the home in Jerusalem and the people say, “Don’t worry. We’ll build another. You demolish it and we’ll build another.” That’s what I admire most about the Palestinian people. It’s this resilience. And people love to say resilience, but I think it’s stubbornness. I think we’re such a stubborn people, and I think that’s great.
Lex Fridman Well, Mohammed, thank you for being a man who exemplifies this unbreakable spirit. Thank you for the words you’ve written, the words you’ve spoken, and thank you for talking today. This is an honor and thank you for educating me.
Mohammed el-Kurd Thank you so much.
Lex Fridman Thanks for listening to this conversation with Mohammed el-Kurd. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now let me leave you with some words from Nelson Mandela. “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.