Presentation with Reverend Dr. Mitri Raheb on Palestinian Youth in the Occupied Territories

Video and Edited Transcript 
Reverend Dr. Mitri Raheb
Transcript No. 456 (March 29, 2016)  


Zeina Azzam:
Thank you, Reverend Raheb, for bringing us these two really stunning documentaries by very promising Palestinian filmmakers. Again what we’ve seen is Praise of the Wounds and The Life of Pigeons. The Praise of the Wounds is by Muhammad Abu Sneinah and The Life of Pigeons is directed by Baha’ Abu Shanab. And now I’ll invite Reverend Raheb to talk about the films and the situation of youth in the Occupied Territories. Thank you.

Reverend Dr. Mitri Raheb:
You know, it’s not easy, really, to say anything after these two films. I think one feels they have to go now and do a prayer or something, because they are very strong. But as you saw, these are actually two out of ten films that were produced by our students this last October. And they don’t talk specifically about the situation of youth, but they are produced by young people. And I think Muhammad took us into his family’s home, so I think through that film we were able to get a film for the social context of Muhammad, and through this film we could get also a sense of Baha’’s father and background, even though it was not about youth. But let me just share with you just [a] few issues that are connected to the situation of youth in Palestine today.

The first thing… there are ten points I would like to mention quickly. Ten points in ten minutes, okay? It’s easy to remember. Palestine is really a young society: 55 percent of our population are under the age of 18. Compared with the [United] States, there is a big difference there. In fact, elderly people, they make only 3.5 percent of the population. Again, a big difference to this country. And if we look at the age of Muhammad and Baha’, which means the age—say between fifteen to 24—they make 20 percent of the population. If we were to make a chart of that, you will see the chart looks really totally different—the age chart—than this country. And you will see that this age group, this is the potential for Palestine, but this also is the challenge for Palestine. Because if these young people will get a good education and will be able to find work, Palestine could have a much better future than we have now, but if we miss that opportunity, it’s going to be really tough for Palestine. So, you know, that’s the first point.

The second point, we did this study two years ago about cultural practices of young people in Palestine. We asked young people in Palestine what they do in terms of cultural practices, again, this generation. Guess what? Somebody in the age of Baha’ or Muhammad, they spent an average three hours daily on Facebook. So this is the generation of social media. And in addition to two hours on [the] TV. So five hours—imagine! When we asked them, “So do you go to see a theater play?” “No.” “Why not?” “No time.” Which, really, it was interesting, we had to think of the whole concept of time. If you spend five hours on social media and TV and then you don’t have time, so what’s your concept of time? And I think what is a bit frightening is that these three hours on social media our young people are only consuming, not producing. In these two films, it’s different, because here we saw two young Palestinians producing something, and now showing it and hopefully later—I mean, the teasers are already on Facebook and on the social media so people can get a sense of what the films are about. But this is really the challenge we face in Palestine. How can we transform our young people from being consumers to becoming producers in the age of social media? And this is actually one of the goals of our University College Dar al-Kalima, to do exactly that transformation to help our young people become productive, not in terms of getting children but productive in terms of producing stuff like this.

And that study, which again also the Bureau of Statistics in Palestine got the same numbers more or less: in this age bracket, if you look at college and university graduates in Palestine—Palestine has a very high number of university and college students, some people don’t know that, but actually the percentage of people going to university and college in Palestine is higher than Hong Kong. Just think [about] this. I don’t have the figure, I can get it to you, but it’s… Maybe I can get it in a few minutes in the Q&A, I have it somewhere here. But unfortunately—so that’s the potential again—the challenge is that, in this study, and the Bureau of Statistics showed the same thing, 45 percent of university graduates are unemployed. The highest number of unemployment in Palestine is not under [or] unskilled labor. If you’re unskilled labor, you will find a job. The problem is, if you are a university graduate, how to find a job, because often education is not connected to the job market. [At] our university, we said we want to focus on things that no one else in Palestine is offering, because we believe we can create new job opportunities in this area.

When we started, there was only one television station in Palestine, a big one, now there are several. Most of our students are working there, but also Palestine, Jerusalem, has the second highest number of journalists after Washington, D.C., believe it or not. I mean, think [about] it, how often do you hear in the news about our part of the world compared with Ghana? Or with Zimbabwe? I mean, so we’re always in the news, not for good reasons, unfortunately. We would love to be less in the news and have more peace than be all the time in the news and have no peace. So the idea was to tap into this potential and to try to create also job opportunities in new areas and fields that were not there, and film is just one of them.

So, the fourth point I would like to make is that in that study we did, it was very interesting, when we asked the young people if they are politically involved with the party, with the political party, guess what? Eighty-five percent are not involved, and most probably don’t want to be involved, which means, somehow, they are fed up with politics. Now, this wasn’t always the case. If we would have done this study 15 years ago, the percentage of young people really actively involved in political parties would have been much, much higher. Another interesting thing was when we asked them about religion, that was the only question where, somehow, the data and the outcome… We thought maybe there was something with the data entry, because what we saw there is that, if you look at the young people of Palestine today, it’s a very polarized situation. You have some people who are very religious – to my taste, maybe too religious. I say this as a pastor, remember, too religious. Even for me it’s just too much, and for God I think it’s too much, so he keeps saying, “Give me [a] break, I can’t handle that much religion.” Or on the other hand, they really didn’t want to hear anything about religion. They are fed up with religion. In fact, I was talking to some professors in Egypt, [and] they think now one of the biggest struggles in Egypt is that many of the young people are agnostic. And again, it’s a polarized situation. I think what we are trying to do in our University College is [ask], how can we, in this context, how can we engage young people to be active in the civic field, in the civil society? I think this is where really most of the energy should go. So can we achieve that? I think this is the challenge ahead of us. How can we get young people to be civically involved and engaged more?

The fifth point is, if I compare the young people today with the time [when] I was young, I mean, [there is] no comparison. For me, it was, I was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Bethlehem. I was going on [a] daily business almost to Jerusalem as a young person. My friends were from Jerusalem, from Ramallah, so we would meet in Jerusalem, and we would sit on the Jerusalem, on the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem and talk and talk and talk. My daughters, who are 21 and 25, maybe they have been only eight times in Jerusalem, because they have to have permits. It’s not easy to get a permit. It’s only over Christmas or Easter that they get permits. It’s a totally different situation. We think in the world today, the world is very mobile, mobility is a very important thing, but when it comes to Palestinian youth, they are totally NOT mobile. But, you know, they can be mobile virtually but not actually, and this is really a challenge for our young people.

Often, when I talk to young people, I feel that many of our young people have no problem to believe that there is life after death. This is like almost Christians, Muslims, somehow the majority, they believe [that] there is life after death. Many of them cannot think of life before death that is worth living, and I think this is really again the challenge. And I think Mahmoud Darwish saw that challenge when he wrote his poem that talks about, there is something on this land that talks about Palestine that is worth living for. Now we cannot preach to young people. Yes there is life after death, [but] we have to create for them the space, to give them, to empower them, to give them the instruments that they can really reach their potential during their lifetime. This is really the challenge we face in Palestine and at our college.

The sixth point I would like to highlight, when we talk to young people, [is] often we feel that they feel very helpless and, to some extent, hopeless. They think nothing is going to change and we cannot do anything. And in fact, in that study that we did, we found out that most of the young people in Palestine are looking for a savior. Now, maybe as a pastor, I should be happy about that because I can tell them we have a savior, but it’s very dangerous because they’re waiting for a savior. Maybe Obama or whatever or people on the Hill here, they’re the savior, to fix the problem. And I think this is really the danger. So the question is, how can we help our young people to know that they have a role to play, that actually nothing will change until they will change it? So they are not objects, [but rather] they are subjects and they can do something about it. And through these films… I mean, talking to Baha’, the director of the second film, talking to him now, he saw that through this film, he became like almost an ambassador for Palestine, [which is] much more powerful than our ambassador in x city. Because, suddenly they know, “actually we can do something, we are subjects. We can do something about it. And we can express ourselves.” And if we give them just the tool to know how to communicate their story in a very creative, in a very qualitative way, I think this is the potential that you saw tonight. So that’s another issue.

The seventh point I would like to make is that the issue of resistance is a very important issue in Palestine. In fact, yesterday I was giving here an interview and I said “as long as there is occupation there will be always resistance.” It was for a Jewish news agency and I said that even if you look at the Jewish history, this is what you know. Whenever there is occupation, there was always resistance. So the question is not ‘if’ to resist. That is not the question. It is ‘how’ to resist that becomes even more important. You can go and take a knife and try to stab someone, which yesterday I told that this is actually something from the Jewish history. In the second century B.C. this is what the Maccabean’s were doing, just to see how sarcastic sometimes history can be. But can we train our young people to see actually films as resistance? And actually something that is much more powerful maybe, if we can reach and tell the story. So that whole issue of art and resistance is a very important issue I think, for the young people of Palestine and this is why at our University College we try to focus on art and culture as important means also for resistance.

Because, and this is the eight point, art is important, like film but also other art forms, as means for self-expression. I often feel that language-wise we don’t have anything new to say. It is not just our land that is occupied, actually the language is also occupied. Through these new forms of expression, young people can express their story in a very new and creative way. Again, it is not by chance that Muhammad took his mother and brother as the main figure, and Baha’ took his father, because actually it is like exploring their own story. I mean Baha’, who did the second film, with a checkpoint, he never ever [before] went with his father that early to the checkpoint. It is only when he made the film that he went with him for one month – so these pictures were taken over one month. Through that exercise actually, Baha’ was able to get a totally different idea of his father’s work that otherwise he would not have gotten. So, self-exploration, self-expression, that is something that we would like young people to get more involved in.

The ninth point I would like to mention is that, we are, at our University College in Dar al-Kalima, we want to focus on the positive energy that is there with young people because often this is not what the media focuses on. So last year we launched the Ismail Shammout Award, Ismail Shammout was one of the most important, well-known Palestinian artists. Actually [he was] a refugee from ‘48 who was kicked out of his home in Jaffa and then ended up in Germany and died like six years ago or so. So we launched last year the Ismail Shammout Award, in his name, to look for young Palestinian artists. This year it was just last month that we chose the best three young artists, again, to encourage young people to get involved positively and to focus on this. In November we will give the Karimeh Abboud Award. Karimeh Abboud was the first female photographer in the Middle East, actually one of the top photographers worldwide. In her memory we are launching this award for young talented photographers. In fact, this morning I was finishing the third award, the papers for the third award, for civic engagement. We would like to look in Palestine for young people who are doing something for one of the problems. It could be environment, it could be gender, it could be whatever, it could be Christian-Muslim… so we would like to look for young people and encourage them, again, to get civically more engaged. So that is where we want to focus actually and to invest. And that is open, by the way, the Karimeh Abboud and Ismail Shammout, for Palestinians anywhere. So even if you know of young Palestinians in this country please encourage them to apply for all of these awards because we want to have it as pan-Palestinian. We refuse to be, ‘this is the Jerusalem item, this is the West Bank and that’s Gaza and that is the inside and that’s the diaspora.” We want to keep the people as a whole.

The last point is, actually with all of this, I think, what we are trying to do is to create what one professor called ‘creative class.’ So, a whole segment of the Palestinian society, we have so many young people who are creative. I think if we compare it with other Arab countries, I think I read a study just this past week, [where] Lebanon and Palestine are on the top when it comes to the Arab world. But we need to invest more in creating this creative class; a whole segment of people that really are engaged in this kind of creativity because, as you saw, the situation is awful. Without creativity, I am afraid that we are going to perish. For me, culture and art are so important, especially for young people, because when you feel that everything is falling apart around you, culture becomes the art to breath. [This is] because, you know, many people thought that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like a sprint. In a sprint you have to run very fast, to put all of your energy and power to get there in thirty seconds. I was not of this opinion to start with. I always had the feeling that, unfortunately, our conflict is a marathon. In fact, after tomorrow, on Friday, there is the Right to Movement Marathon in Bethlehem. So there will be about 4,000 young people participating in this marathon. It is a long marathon, and in a long marathon, if you do not learn how to breathe, you either kill yourself or you give up. This is why many people, in the course of history, gave up on Palestine. Even now, unfortunately, your politicians here have given up on Israel-Palestine. If you hear what President Obama said just last week, or Kerry, “We cannot do anything,” [this is] because they were thinking that it is a sprint. But really, unfortunately, it is not a sprint. So we need to train our young people, not only to survive in this marathon, but how to be able to thrive, not because, but in spite of all the challenges that try to crush them and to crush their spirit. So, I hope that this at least, gave you an idea about the situation of young people in Palestine today. Thank you.