For Yale genetics professor and Palestinian activist Mazin Qumsiyeh, Sept. 11 was a blow not only to the security of his adopted country but to the image of his homeland.
“It’s a dual pain,” he said.
Footage of Palestinians celebrating in the West Bank upon learning of the attacks may sap much of the American sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
It is a sympathy Qumsiyeh has devoted years to fostering.
A student activist during his college years, he now serves as the media director for Al-Awda, an organization which champions the Palestinian right of return.
The right of return deals with the desire of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes they occupied before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, in land now under Israeli control.
Although Qumsiyeh’s activism has earned him hostile e-mails in the wake of the attacks, the self-described lifetime pacifist and human rights activist does not fear for his own safety of his family.
“Compared to what the Palestinians are going through, we’re in heaven,” he said.
And Qumsiyeh knows from experience. He remembers watching Israeli tanks roll into the West Bank at the beginning of the war in 1967. It was then, he said, that he realized he wanted to be a peace activist and human rights educator.
He was 10 years old at the time.
A succession of incidents hardened his feelings toward the Israeli government in the years that followed.
Qumsiyeh recalls innumerable humiliations at the hands of Israelis: watching soldiers beat his father, being strip-searched before crossing the Jordan River to travel between his home and university, and more.
He described one incident in which he was teaching a group of 16- and 17-year-old Palestinian refugees when an Israeli soldier threw a tear gas canister into the classroom.
As his students left the room, said Qumsiyeh, the soldiers beat them with clubs. He tried to persuade one soldier to stop, but they moved him out of the way.
“He threw me in the truck with the students and took us to the police station,” he said. “They didn’t book us or anything; they just put us in the jail cell overnight and released us.”
Qumsiyeh said he has never thrown rocks at Israeli soldiers or demonstrated in a violent way and that such methods are unjustified, but that he understands why some people resort to them.
“Do you expect those 1.2 million who have remained peaceful and quiet so far to remain peaceful and quiet when they have to stand at attention when the Israeli national anthem is played that talks about Jews’ yearning for the land?” he said.
Pacifism, he acknowledges, is not always easy to maintain.
When Qumsiyeh was in high school, and he and his fellow students approached an Israeli checkpoint in Bethlehem only to be greeted with batons and tear gas from the soldiers. Rather than engaging them, he turned and left.
But in retrospect he questions his decision. “You wonder whether you are brave or not brave,” he said.
He came to America in 1979 as a student, although Israeli-Palestinian violence thwarted his plans to return after the completion of his degree. He subsequently became a naturalized American citizen.
Today, Qumsiyeh fights for the Palestinian cause by serving to correct to what he sees as media bias.
Although he bears responsibility for dealing with journalists, Qumsiyeh deeply mistrusts of the mainstream American press, which he sees as a slave to oil and military interests.
Qumsiyeh has often found himself walking a fine line between publicizing his cause and keeping himself out of the limelight.
“I’m just one of many hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “There are people much better at this than I am.”
Modesty is not his only reason for avoiding what he considers to be establishment media. Qumsiyeh said he is considering suing the Connecticut Jewish Ledger for characterizing him in an editorial as “an apologist for terror,” a charge he vehemently denies.
The editors of the Ledger did respond to requests for comment.
Rabbi James Ponet, the Jewish chaplain at Yale, has a significantly more positive assessment of Qumsiyeh.
They met through a group called the Connecticut Coalition of Arabs and Jews for Peace, of which they are both members.
Despite Qumsiyeh’s frustration with the media, said Ponet, “I think he is doing a splendid job getting his point across.”
But they have differences that extend well beyond Ponet’s rejection of Qumsiyeh’s allegations of widespread pro-Israel bias in the American media.
“Mazin is interested in the dissolution of a Jewish state,” Ponet said. “I want to see the continuation of a Jewish state.”
Qumsiyeh said he does not mind if a nation exists in which a majority of the population is Jewish.
But he said his objection to Israel as it exists is that the laws of the country, which he described as “ethnocentric,” favor Jews over Palestinians and other people.
Qumsiyeh, who is Christian, said he feels that Jews could prosper even in the absence of a state with Judaism as the official religion.
“We would prosper and be happier than we are now, and I would say the same thing about the Jews,” he said.
It’s a vision that seems further than ever from coming to fruition, but Qumsiyeh is undeterred.
“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “I really believe that if enough people try to resolve their differences by nonviolent civil disobedience [and] teach-ins, the world would be a better place.”