Watch Live: The Washington Ideas Forum 2014

How Anti-Jewish Jokes Hurt the Palestinian Cause

An Arab student born in East Jerusalem explains why there's nothing funny about the hatred that drove Jews out of Europe.
A Palestinian woman in the West Bank waits for medical services at a mobile clinic. (Alberto Barbierro/Flickr)

It happens every time I visit the U.S., and it’s happened increasingly over the last five years. I say I’m Palestinian (usually after trying out the less inflammatory “I’m from Jerusalem” and then being pressed for detail). There’s a pause, and then—“Oh, so... is it a problem for you that I’m Jewish?”

There it is. The assumption that because I am Palestinian, I harbor animosity toward Jews—and not just Israeli Jews, but all Jews, all the time, everywhere. It was one of the first questions I got asked when my new roommate met me at the beginning of my college career, and again as I mingled at my first-ever internship lunch. It was what made a Jewish kid switch seats and move across the room from me during a seminar—he was worried, I was later informed, about sitting next to a Palestinian. It’s happened time and again, yet it still takes me by surprise.

Despite this initial hurdle, I’ve formed close relationships with many Jews—and that, in turn, often inspires condescension from others. It’s adorable that one of my closest friends is Jewish; it’s inspiring to see us eating together and making jokes. Such comments may be meant benignly, but they deftly reduce a 60-odd-year struggle for political independence to a squabble between siblings.

I try to explain, as mildly as I can, that my having Jewish friends doesn’t signify the end of the grim state of affairs in the region. I point out that, historically, Arabs and Jews actually lived pretty well together. In spite of rhetoric to the contrary, the Mideast crisis isn’t a case of why-can’t-they-just-get-along. It isn’t about ethnic differences. It isn’t hummus vs. hoummous.

Sometimes, instead of a pleased-and-patronizing outsider, I find myself confronted with sneaky, lurking, real anti-Semites who unabashedly come out of the woodwork when they hear that I’m Palestinian. “Hey, wanna hear a good one?” a stranger will ask conspiratorially. I cut him off before he finishes his joke, as soon as I can tell where it’s headed. “Dude,” I say. “You have no idea how badly you’ve misread this situation.”

It’s not just that I get how hurtful this type of discrimination can be. As both a Palestinian and an Arab in a post-9/11 world, I’ve been on the receiving end of it. It’s not even just because I can picture the faces of the Jews I know and love, for whom those jokes would strike deep and painfully resonant chords.

There’s another reason I despise these jokes. The Jews I meet might assume that I sympathize with the bomb-wielding extremists who want to push Israel into the sea. (To be clear: I do not.) But these closet anti-Semites assume that I sympathize with a species of historically European anti-Semitism —the kind that involves jokes about Jews hoarding money and controlling the media, the kind that involves big noses and black hats, the kind that led to the Jews’ persecution in the West. And those canards have nothing to do with Palestinians.

Presented by

Nuzha Nusseibeh is a freelance writer currently living in Scotland.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.


Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."


The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands


'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.


Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas


The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm


Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."


Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Global

Just In