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Diaspora Down Under: the Story of Palestinians in Australia

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 22.03.2008:

By Rawan Abdul-Nabi and Randa Abdel-Fattah

Often enough when we visit our families and friends in Palestine, in the Arab world, and across the shatat, having made a journey that has crossed more than one ocean and more than one continent, we are often lauded for our travelling stamina. And then almost suddenly impressed upon us is the striking and almost angry realisation that our tragedy has the ability to disperse us as far as possible from our homeland – even “to the end of the world.” The Palestinians in Australia are “at the end of the world,” but Palestine has remained close to their hearts, consciousness, and actions.

According to Hani Elturk, a Palestinian journalist and editor of El Telegraph, an Arabic-language newspaper in Sydney, one of the first recorded Palestinian immigrants to Australia was a Palestinian from Nazareth who migrated in 1947 with his Jewish wife. He subsequently worked in trade between Australia and the USAi There are reports of a few other early Palestinian migrants, such as a small number of youth who were enlisted with Australian soldiers in Palestine and returned with the soldiers on navy ships to Australia.

However, the main wave of Palestinian immigration to Australia was in the 1960s. This was probably due to a combination of factors. Palestinians who fled to Arab countries following the Zionist strategy of mass expulsion poured into neighbouring Arab states on the assumption that their exodus was temporary and they would soon return home. Western countries were not generally an option at that point. It is also likely that the White Australia Policy, which legislated for the intentional restriction of non-white immigration to Australia from 1901 to 1973, accounted in some measure for the low numbers of Palestinians who migrated to Australia prior to the 1960s. That policy was dismantled in stages by successive governments, and Palestinians who arrived in the 1960s came mainly from the Arab states, propelled by their experiences of discrimination and economic hardship as “stateless” non-citizens.

The largest waves of immigration occurred in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, at the beginning of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, and after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The last major wave came in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991 from Palestinians fleeing Kuwait.

There is a dearth of statistics on Palestinian migration to Australia given that Palestinians entered on so many different passports. It is thought that by 1975 the total number of Palestinians who migrated to Australia reached around 6,000. In addition to the problem of different passports, prior to 2001, the Australian census did not contain a question on a person’s ancestry. In the only census that has been held since 2001, active community members desperately tried to spread the word and importance of responding to the question of ancestry with “Palestinian” and not any other Arab nationality. Local researcher and geographer Jeremy Cox, of the University of Sydney, has argued that in some respects Palestinians in Australia are “an ‘invisible’ national group … distinctive neither by birthplace nor language.” He notes that as a birthplace in official Australian census data, Palestine existed for the first and only time in 1947, when there were 1,658 Palestine-born residents in Sydney alone.ii Since then, Palestine was erased and was incorporated into Israel as a birthplace, thereby including Jews and others and excluding Palestinians born outside of Palestine. This also assumes and designates Israeli nationality and/or ancestry for those Palestinians in Israel who hold Israeli citizenship. Contemporary estimates of the Palestinian population in Australia have ranged from 6,000 to 15,000, most of whom reside in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities.iii

The first wave of Palestinians who arrived in Australia in the 1960s belonged largely to the working class and had a relatively low level of education. The expulsion of large numbers of Palestinians from the Gulf countries as a result of the Gulf War of 1991 meant that Palestinians forced to migrate to Australia were often highly educated professionals and this has certainly since been a defining characteristic of the Palestinian population in Australia. Together with Egyptians, Palestinians were the best-educated Arabic-speaking migrants in Australia.iv Displacement has meant that education is highly revered among Palestinians world-wide and the need for attaining qualifications has strongly assisted in their migration to various countries. As one Palestinian in Sydney says:

“Palestinians are always moving, and therefore you not only need to be highly qualified so that you can survive where you go, but also since we don’t have the privileges of a state and citizenship, we have to have something different in order to be accepted into a country and one such thing is education.” v

Australia can boast of many high-profile successful Palestinians who have made an outstanding contribution to Australia whilst vigilantly maintaining their identity. For reasons of space, it is impossible to provide more than a snapshot of some such individuals.

Fathi (Fred) Shahin and Sam Shahin arrived in Australia in 1984 setting up a privately owned business in Adelaide that today employs 2,000 people. Peregrine Corporation is ranked 10th in South Australia’s top-100 businesses. Fathi Fathi, the managing director, was awarded the Order of Australia Medal, Australia’s highest honour, for his charity work.

Hanna Karkar of Queens Counsel is one of Australia’s leading and eminent barristers. He has made an enormous contribution to legal practice in Australia and has appeared in ground-breaking matters in all jurisdictions up to the High Court.

Dr. Adnan Abdel-Fattah worked as an award-winning senior research scientist with the Commonwealth of Australia in the field of aeronautical engineering for 25 years. With an international patent for anti-stalling compressor devices, he has been included in the American Marquis Who’s Who in the World and Who’s Who in Science and Engineering.

The Palestinian Australian community is, like any minority community, affected by factional politics. One Palestinian academic attributes this to the failure of “current and previous Palestinian representatives in Canberra to find the magical potion to unify the community.” He contends that that magic potion “starts with common interest … the community needs a local (as well as home-related) subject matter that weaves a united interest.”

One of the tensions has been between the “older” and “younger” generations, although this is by no means a unique feature of the Palestinian community alone. One Palestinian reflects that this is due to competing ideas as to how to define “Palestinian identity”: “Identities change all the time,” he says. “The Palestinian identity during the 1920s, for instance, was different than it was during the 1940s. Again, during the early 1950s, it was dramatically different than during the early-1970s or the mid-1990s or even now. Perpetual change in community identity reflects and lends itself to smaller communities, political factions, and eventually to individuals. People in the diaspora are particularly affected because this change is a synthesis between two cultures often driven in different time zones and shaped by different experiences and perceptions from so far away.”

At times, though, Palestinian Australians have transcended political divisiveness or generational tension and rallied together in response to the deafening silence of Australia to the occupation and Israel’s ongoing atrocities and human rights violations.

Palestinians in Australia have strong reasons to feel that their struggle is often represented by the media and some politicians in the language of “isms”: terrorism, extremism, fanaticism, radicalism; a four-letter suffix capable of systematic dehumanization and de-legitimisation of their struggle for liberation. Palestinians who regularly attempt to engage with the news media also complain about the censorship of Palestinian voices and the disproportionate and virtually unlimited access given to Zionist views. Indeed, according to Antony Lowenstein, author of My Israel Question,vi the “Australian Zionist lobby’s influence over the political and media elite is considerable.”

There is a strong activist movement in Australia, particularly amongst the younger generation, including Australian-born Palestinians. Organisations such as Australian Friends of Palestine Association, the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC), Australians for Palestine (AFP), and Women for Palestine were set up to dispel the myths and disinformation about Palestine by actively engaging with the media, academic institutions, federal and state parliaments, governmental bodies, NGOs, and the community at large. Importantly, many of these activists collaborate with other Arab Australian artists and organise events aimed at cultural and artistic expression, creating a plethora of exhibitions, theatre, and other art forms that keep Palestine alive in the cultural realm.

Moammar Mashni, the public face of AFP, reflects that AFP was formed because “there was a desperate need to articulate the voice of the Palestinian in the diaspora here in Australia. For too long, the quintessential Palestinian voice was that of a 45-year-old male, who spoke only broken English at best, was unshaven, and almost always shouted at whomever he was speaking to.”

There have been occasions when Australian institutions have had an opportunity to take a powerful stance against the occupation and abuses of the Israeli government but succumbed to bullying from the Zionist lobby in Australia or simply paid lip service to the Israeli agenda. Palestinians were active in support of the Sydney Peace Foundation (SPF) awarding Hanan Ashrawi the Sydney Peace Prize in 2003, when opponents of her selection attempted to intimidate and threaten SPF and Bob Carr, the Premier of New South Wales, from presenting Dr. Ashrawi with her award. Palestinians have rallied together in support of municipal councils’ efforts to establish sister-city relationships with Hebron and Bethlehem in the face of virulent opposition and threatening tactics against Council members. Community organisations have also arranged Film Festivals, peace vigils, cultural workshops, and fund-raising and welfare projects.

An important question faced by all diaspora and immigrant communities concerns the question of identity and belonging. For the vast majority of Palestinians in Australia, there is no lived experience of Palestine. The link to Palestine as a homeland has therefore passed through one generation to the next by acts of memory.

Palestinians here are also taking part in the wider discussion being held among communities in the diaspora. The continued diminishing role that the broader Palestinian diaspora community has had due to the role played by Oslo, the subsequent peace process, and the fact that the Palestinian Authority removed them from the agenda and forced them to sit idle on the sidelines has been a cause of serious concern among the Palestinians in Australia. One Palestinian respondent had this to say about what confronts Palestinian diaspora communities:

“This is what needs to change. We need to acknowledge that our national liberation struggle movement had been catastrophically diluted and metamorphosed into a quasi struggle against what otherwise is now termed a peace partner. Once this affirmation is consolidated, the notion would filter through to all Palestinian communities living in the diaspora, and that might just unite those communities towards a common goal.”

Palestinians in Australia and across the diaspora feel that they have a significant role to play in the national movement. Being on the outside and disconnected from the daily realities of Palestine has meant that many have feelings of impotence. Mazen Dahdal, a native of Taybeh (Ramallah) from the West Bank and an associate lecturer of law at Macquarie University in Sydney says: “You oscillate between an Australian and Palestinian identity. When you see people in Palestine suffering you feel Palestinian; but when it’s not at the forefront in your life you get caught up with the daily realities of your life and then you feel Australian. But then an Australian identity has always been an anomaly. I, like many, often ask myself what it is to me. I find myself constantly feeling out of place. Identifying as an Australian is more simplistic, it allows you to shed the burden of carrying a Palestinian identity. Yet even when identifying with one identity I tend to see myself despising the other because it seeks to displace me and dilutes and confuses my settled identity at the time.”

When asked about how he would like to contribute to Palestine if he should return, he says, “Ideally I would like to contribute in the way that I can in my limited capacity. For me it would not be about expressing the Palestinian narrative and telling our story, it would be more about inward-looking reform, about Westernizing the legal system per se.” This he says is more about transforming the legal culture, which in essence requires augmenting the social culture somewhat and how fellow Palestinians see each other. That, he continued, is extremely difficult because of embedded institutions and mindsets of traditional Arab culture – which are not all bad. Fear of being misquoted, Dahdal added that he acknowledges that there are norms of behaviour in Arab culture and traditions which are just as effective if not more effective in solving problems as opposed to Western-style litigation many of which revolve around the strong family bonds that dominate Palestinian life. As an example, Dahdal said, “the family-orientated reconciliation of a dispute, called the sulha, for example, I believe to be one of the most effective and beautiful Palestinian social institutions.”

On the subject of return, Palestinian respondents varied. Many hoped to return in some capacity but cited immediate concerns about relocating present lives. Ibrahim Qardan, born to refugee parents from Yaffa in Jordan, says that he never left Palestine, because Palestine lives in him. The varied responses to this question testify to the diversity of Palestinians in Australia. Two respondents were Palestinians from “the inside” who hold Israeli citizenship. The subject of return is relatively easy for them to contemplate. Dr. Bassam Dally of Kufr Yassif migrated to Australia in search of better opportunities. Inadequate growth opportunities for Palestinians in Israel have limited the ability of young professionals and academics such as Dally to realize their potentials. Dally came to Australia to finish his doctoral studies and has lived in Adelaide teaching as a lecturer since. He says, “I and my family, back home, are attached to our land and will insist in living in our village and protecting our homes and land in Kufr Yassif.” Unlike Dahdal, he does not feel that his two identities, Australian and Palestinian, conflict. Rather, they are in harmony with one another.

Another young professional Dr. Awdah Arraf, a native of the north, spent more than six months in Palestine last year. Having spent her formative years in the West she identifies as an Arab Palestinian and believes that being surrounded by a multitude of identities has helped shape her own identity and her appreciation of others. Having completed a PhD in theoretical physics, Arraf is now a practicing patent attorney heading the Intellectual Property Division for a high-tech company in Sydney. She has recently started to think about relocating there, even considering a possible move to East Jerusalem. When asked about the main difficulty facing Palestinians in Australia, she notes with disappointment the youth’s lack of spoken Arabic. She does say, however, that the Palestinian-Australian community’s “strengths lie in the strong sense of belonging and solidarity with our cause. Most of the Palestinians I’ve interacted with in the diaspora also happened to have preserved our cultural values despite having been born and raised in the West.”

Dahdal has retained much of his Palestinian humour, however, and he believes that there are points where he can reconcile his two identities. “I’m proud that I come from the only beer-brewing village in the Arab world (home of Taybeh Beer). If Aussie culture is about having a beer – that provides a reconciliation of sorts for me.” Despite perceived tensions about generational gaps between young and old, conflicts of identities, and attachment to homeland, Palestinians in Australia are a growing community that have much more to contribute.

In Mahmoud Darwish’s beautiful prose recollections in Memory for Forgetfulness, he recounts scenes with his Jewish lover, Rita. After they make love, she tells him, “Take me to Australia, where there’s no one belonging to you or me; not even you and me.” … “Take me to Australia,” she said. And I realised the time had come for us to get away from discord and war. “Take me to Australia” – because I couldn’t reach Jerusalem.

That is where we Palestinians in Australia find ourselves today.

Rawan Abdul-Nabi is a Palestinian graduate student of law at the University of Sydney who recently visited London for a One State Conference and was in Paris with Palestinian youth from around the world in the founding of the Palestinian Youth Network (PYN).

Randa Abdel-Fattah is an Australian-born Palestinian. She is a lawyer and writer. She has been published in Australia, America, and the United Kingdom and translated into several languages. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two-year-old daughter.

i. Elturk, Hani. The Palestinians in Australia, The NSW Australian Palestinian Association Inc, 1995.

ii. Cox, Jeremy and Connell, John, “Place, Exile and Identity: The Contemporary Experience of Palestinians in Sydney,” Australian Geographer, 34:3, 329-343, 2003.

iii. ibid.

iv. Abu Duhou, I. and Teese, R. Education, Workforce and Community Participation of Arab Australians, Canberra, Australian Government Printing Service, 1992.

v. Quoted in Cox and Connell, “Place, Exile and Identity.”

vi. Lowenstein, Antony, My Israel Question, Melbourne University Press, 2006.

This Week in Palestine

March 2008

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