Fouzi El-Asmar (photo courtesy of the International Council for Middle East Studies)
Renowned Palestinian poet, author, journalist and activist Fouzi El-Asmar died near his home in Bethesda, Maryland on 19 September, three weeks after the death of his wife, Maria T. El-Asmar. Both had been suffering from failing health in recent years. Fouzi was buried in Palestine, upon his request, today.
For more than fifty years, Fouzi El-Asmar was one of the most important public intellectuals of the Palestinian liberation struggle. Born in Haifa in 1937, he grew up in a Palestinian area of present-day Israel. In 1958, he became a member of the editorial board of the literary monthly Al-Fajr and in 1966 he became editor of the Arabic magazine Hadha Al-Alam. In 1979, after attending university in the US and graduate school in the UK, he became the managing editor of the London-based international newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat.
Fouzi’s work centered around Israel and the Palestinians, with particular focus on the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Following in the footsteps of his mother, Najla El-Asmar, who was an activist long before Israel’s establishment in 1948, Fouzi helped found al-Ard, an anti-Zionist political organization committed to the defense of the civil and political rights of “Israeli Arabs.”
Al-Ard predated the Palestine Liberation Organization and eschewed the sorts of compromises for which the PLO would eventually be criticized. Hence, al-Ard was banned in 1964 by the Israeli authorities, who found it threatening. The organization’s office was ransacked, and its property was confiscated.
Its prominent members, including Fouzi, were later imprisoned without charge. Fouzi was detained for well over a year in 1969-1970, then subject to a year of house arrest in 1971.
Fouzi El-Asmar was one of the first post-Nakba intellectuals to break into the Anglophone public sphere, with groundbreaking analyses of the everyday life and struggles of the Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. To Be an Arab in Israel (1975) was an autobiographical account published in several languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, English and Danish.
He also wrote of the ideological underpinnings of popular Hebrew children’s books in Through the Hebrew Looking Glass: Arab Stereotypes in Children’s Literature (1986), originally his dissertation completed under the advisement of Jewish anti-Zionist Uri Davis at the University of Exeter, where Fouzi earned a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic studies.
Fouzi, who considered himself first and foremost a poet, also wrote several collections of poetry, including Poems from an Israeli Prison (1973) and The Wind-Driven Reed and Other Poems (1979). In addition, he published creative collective works theorizing a resolution to the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, such as Towards a Socialist Republic of Palestine (1978, with Uri Davis) and Debate on Palestine (1981, with Davis and Na’im Khader).
Despite his faltering health, Fouzi remained tirelessly committed to the Palestinian struggle. In addition to writing regular columns for international Arabic newspapers such as al-Quds al-Arabi and Amgad al-Arab, he lectured in the Washington area and frequently gave media interviews, usually in Arabic but occasionally in English.
Fouzi prioritized the Arabic language because he wanted to explain the intricacies and machinations of US public policy and foreign affairs to the Arab world. He believed doing so would enable informed political organizing and decision-making in the Middle East.
A friendship to cherish
I knew and worked with Fouzi for several years at the International Council for Middle East Studies, a Washington-based think tank. We served together on its board of directors, developing a friendship I will always cherish.
Although our time together was all too short-lived, Fouzi and I hit it off splendidly upon our first meeting, when I experienced an immediate, uncanny feeling that I had already known him for many years.
To Be an Arab in Israel, which I had encountered in graduate school while writing a dissertation on the Zionist overdetermination of Holocaust film, was for me no mere exercise in conveying basic information about the conflict. This deeply personal and critically incisive book was instrumental in spurring me irrevocably in the direction of Palestine solidarity.
Particularly influential to me was the book’s critique of the Israeli–Palestinian “dialogue” groups in which Fouzi had participated optimistically, although not without reservation, during the 1960s.
These groups would eventually dissolve after hundreds of thousands more Palestinians were brought under Israeli rule following the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israelis in these groups came to fear for the “Jewish demographic” of their exclusivist state, and in turn began to foresake their newfound Palestinian friends.
Accordingly, following the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War of 1973, “progressive” or “left” Israelis suddenly reversed their previous inclination toward Palestinian equality and integration, and adopted a heightened siege mentality, encouraged by official Israeli propaganda. That propaganda misrecognized Palestinians as European-style anti-Semites, deserving little more than the ethnic cleansing which settler-colonial Zionism, steeped in European racialism, had introduced to the region — and which continues to this day.
Fouzi was astutely aware of Zionist intransigence in relation to Palestinians’ unfailing insistence — expressed at least as far back as 1897 — on their rightful and sovereign presence in the region. He in turn argued that the critique of Zionism, the ideological myth of Jewish national identity, must therefore be central to any project or campaign aimed at resolving the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. For Fouzi, anything less would neglect the crux of the problem and thus enable the persistence of Israeli domination throughout the region.
Continuing the struggle
I was privileged to know the author of this book that says so much about the character and effects of Zionism, its profoundly unstable psychology and its very real cruelty, and who did so much for the advancement of the Palestinian struggle.
After I started working with Fouzi, I became increasingly convinced that his writing in Arabic, while crucial to the struggle, had had the unintended side-effect of rendering him barely known to younger generations of activists and intellectuals in the English-speaking world. This led to my decision to approach him about conducting a comprehensive interview that would, in effect, encapsulate the core of his thinking and the history of his major writings.
The result was a two-part series, the first appearing in Arabisto in February 2012, the second in ZNet in October 2012. Fouzi’s patient and detailed responses to my numerous, occasionally naive questions were humbling in their honesty and forthrightness.
On a more personal note, I shall miss Fouzi’s frequent telephone calls, his bouncing ideas off me as he prepared his weekly columns, gauging my knowledge — or lack thereof — in brilliant displays of dialectic which reflected a keen intellect, his ability to cut through and clarify the apparent “complexities” of the conflict, to see the forest for the trees. These educational conversations will be missed more than anything.
Rest in peace, Fouzi. We shall continue the struggle for you until genuine peace reigns, at long last, in your homeland Palestine.
Terri Ginsberg is a film scholar and Palestine solidarity activist based in New York City. Her publications include Historical Dictionary of Middle Eastern Cinema and special issues of the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies and Arab Studies Quarterly. Her essay about the blacklisting of Vanessa Redgrave appears on the newly-remastered Blu-ray of Playing for Time.
The original version of this article stated that al-Ard was banned in 1984, rather than 1964. This error has now been corrected.