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Explaining Palestine to a 9-Year-Old

/ 21 Sep 2021

Explaining Palestine to a 9-Year-Old

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of an essay that was originally published on Maha Bali’s blog.

I wrote this post because I realized that it was time my 9-year-old learned about Palestine. And that somehow, somehow, our children in Egypt have learned about the Holocaust in Year 4 of the British curriculum and not about Palestine in the Arabic or the British curriculum. They didn’t learn about the importance of Al-Aqsa Mosque in religion. About any of the history, of Palestine or of Egypt’s relationship with Palestine and Israel. I needed to do something about that!

I had recently spent some time trying to explain Palestine to people from Australia to South Africa to the United States who meant well but understood very little about the Palestinian situation. And then my husband and I discussed whether it was time to discuss it with our daughter, but the responsibility ultimately fell to me. It is difficult to know how to start and how far to go, whether to include England’s role or just focus on the relationship between Israel and Palestine, and whether to clarify why Palestine matters to us as Muslims and Egyptians or not.

I kind of did all of that, but the main gist of the abstract concept was this:

Palestine is like a family who have been living in a home for generations, but then some other group of people (Zionists) came over and took their homes, claiming their great-grandparents used to live there, then they told them they could basically live in the basement or a small bathroom. Not only that, but Palestinians could not move out of that basement without permission, and the Israeli Zionists controlled when and how the Palestinians could get food and water. They also occasionally banged loudly on their doors or threatened them with violence. They occasionally threw bombs and killed some of them. The Palestinians sometimes tried to get out, but risked their lives each time. Sometimes they threw stones out of anger, but they had few real weapons to defend or attack. If they ever managed to get out, all the way out the front door, they might never be able to get back in again—definitely not without permission from the new owner.

That’s basically the very abstract idea. Missing lots of nuance, of course.

Why Palestine Matters

The other dimensions I thought were important were why Palestine matters to Muslims and Egyptians.

The other dimensions I thought were important were why Palestine matters to Muslims and Egyptians.

The Egyptian angle is significant and obvious. Geographically, Palestine is our eastern neighbor. When Israel took it over (occupied and colonized it), it became our neighbor. A Jewish-only state (discriminating on the basis of religion) in the midst of 22 Muslim majority states with significant Christian populations and a small Arab Jewish minority. There is also the not insignificant fact that in 1967 Israel occupied Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. I reminded my daughter of Sharm el Sheikh, one of the most beautiful tourist cities in Egypt, and that Israel had it for some time until we fought back successfully in 1973, and eventually got Sinai back after the peace treaty with Israel. The 1973 story is contentious: the Arabic Wikipedia has a different conclusion than the English one. The Arabic says Egypt won. The English says Egypt initially had military victory but Israel had political victory (after the United States intervened). I didn’t tell my kid all this, though. Just that Egypt got back Sinai after 1973.

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I also felt the need to mention the role of English colonization in the region and how the English gifted Palestinian land to Zionist Jews. My kid knows already about the Holocaust. It was one of the worst tragedies of human history against Jews. Possibly the worst genocide. But I don’t believe Israel exists because of the Holocaust, simply because Zionism predates it. The Balfour Declaration promising Palestinian land to Jewish people was in 1917, nearly 40 years before Hitler and the Holocaust.

I also explained to my daughter the parallels between this situation and the colonization of America and Australia. The original inhabitants were killed and eventually relegated to small pieces of land they could control (in the United States, at least, reservations).

Why Jerusalem Matters

And now … the religious significance of Jerusalem. First, Jesus was born in Palestine. Even though of course many Jewish prophets are also from the region, I think the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem alone and the fact Jerusalem is a site of pilgrimage for Christians is the most significant thing.

Before Muslims took over the Kaaba in Mecca during the Prophet Muhammad’s time, they prayed by facing towards what is now the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. This is the third holiest site in Islam.

Moreover, before Muslims took over the Kaaba in Mecca during the Prophet Muhammad’s time, they prayed by facing towards what is now the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. This is the third holiest site in Islam. Eventually, the Kaaba became the most holy site and Muslims pray towards it and do pilgrimage there. But Jerusalem was the first. During the Prophet Muhammad’s time there was a miracle involving him traveling overnight to Jerusalem (Israa and Mi’raj) and praying with Abraham and other prophets.

The idea is that all three monotheistic religions have holy sites in Jerusalem. And yes, Jews have been persecuted for years. Israel is a name for the prophet Jacob, son of Isaac son of Abraham. Jacob is the father of Joseph and Benjamin, from whom Moses and Jesus descended. Abraham is also the father of Ismail/Ishmael, an ancestor of the Prophet Muhammad.

Moses was born in Egypt. At the time Jews were persecuted, but God saved him, and his story is in the Qur’an many many times from birth to his victory over Pharoah by splitting the sea and much more. The Qur’an shares stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers and their generations of children. It also tells about Moses and Aaron, Mary and Jesus, and it mentions David and Solomon.

And somehow, somehow, our children in Egypt have learned about the Holocaust in Year 4 British curriculum and not about Palestine in the Arabic or British curriculum. I need to do something about that!

Links to Find Out More

The following are some resources I found by asking friends. If you have others, you can suggest them in the Comments field below.

Two more things:

Maha Bali is an associate professor of practice in the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. She is a co-founder of virtuallyconnecting.org and a co-facilitator of Equity Unbound.

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For additional reporting by Al-Fanar Media on the challenges that routinely confront Palestinian universities and students, see the following articles:




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