[This interview was conducted by phone on 9 November 2018.]
Much research on Jewish solidarity with Palestinians within the physical boundaries of historical Palestine has focused on subjects who have assumed the Israeli identity, either by birth or by migration, and then betrayed the Zionist project by directly providing material and political support to Palestinian resistance organizations. This movement of “traitorism,” has been followed by well-known individuals like Ilan Halevi, Uri Davis, and Tali Fahima, Jewish Israeli citizens who supported or joined Fatah. Little work, however, has been done to identify and analyze communities of Palestinians with recent Jewish ancestry, if not by faith, then by familial ties. These people belonged to one constantly interacting and dynamic community in the former Ottoman Empire stretching at least from Syria to Egypt and did not form a part of the Israeli identity, by choice or by chance. Instead, as Palestinians and refugees, they opted to struggle directly against Zionism in the period directly after the Nakba. These individuals pose a direct counterpoint to the mainstream narrative, even within anti-Zionist frameworks, which erases the full histories of Palestinian Jewry. Such a narrative assumes, if not a total assimilation into Zionist ideas, then at least a total assimilation into Israeli identity and anti-Zionist struggle within the confines of Israeli society, the Israeli Communist Party, and other such forces and institutions.
While it is true that Israel absorbed the vast majority of Jewish Palestinians, that is not the full picture of this community. Like much of Jewish history, the essential identity of Jewish Palestinians is very hard to discern due to conversion, intermarriage with other religious groups, and intermarriage with Ashkenazi Jews. The demographics of what can be considered Jewish Palestinians or Palestinians with recent Jewish ancestry is controversial due to continuous Jewish immigration, Zionist and non-Zionist, throughout history from the diaspora to live in Palestine. Distinct communities of Yiddish, Ladino, and Arabic speaking Jews (with Arabic-speaking Jews divided into communities even among themselves) had formed before the advent of Zionism. A current among Israeli Jewish leftists also embrace anti-Zionism, and looking towards a liberatory future, call themselves “Palestinian Jews,” despite having no Palestinian heritage as a political statement, which further complicates the nomenclature.
Although not numerically large and very difficult to identify due to conversion and other factors, a surprisingly high proportion of Palestinian Jews actively joined and led the Palestinian national liberation struggle: Fatah members William Nassar, Nabil Nassar, and Samir Abu Ghazaleh, and PFLP leader Kamal Nammari among them. Odette Nassar, the mother of William and Nabil, identifies at least 550 families of Jewish women married to Palestinian refugees whose “sons are, or will be, fedayeen.” The narratives and histories of these individuals contribute to a better understanding of the conception of identity in a pre-Zionist, multi-ethnic, and multireligious Ottoman Palestine, and help the anti-Zionist movement globally to reframe its struggle as one not between religious groups, but rather a direct confrontation between settler colonialism and an indigenous population of all religions.
William Najib Nassar, noms de guerre Louie al-Jabi, George Habayeb, Nidal Mansour, Abu Mohammed, was born in Jerusalem in 1946 to a Palestinian Christian father, Najib, and a Palestinian-Egyptian Jewish mother, Odette. Two years later, during the Nakba, Nassar and his family were in Alexandria, Egypt where his father was pursuing a Master’s in archeology. The family had to relocate to Ramallah where much of their extended family had fled from Jerusalem. Beginning as a student at St. George’s School in East Jerusalem and inspired by the achievements of Gamal Nasser and other Arab nationalists, Nassar was active in the Jordanian section of the Ba’ath Party from the age of fourteen. He rose to be the head of the party branch within his school. In 1965, Nassar joined al-Asifa, the military wing of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah) in which he remains until today. As part of Fatah, and against the wishes of his parents, he travelled to Lebanon, Syria, Germany, China, Spain, Algeria, and other countries to train new fedayeen and receive military training himself. In 1968, during a commando operation near Jerusalem, Nassar was captured, imprisoned, and tortured. He remained in Israeli military prison for twelve years before being released in a prisoner exchange in 1980. After imprisonment, Nassar went to Tunisia to join the exiled leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization where he remained, before he was able to return to the West Bank after the end of the First Intifada. He is the author of the autobiography, Taghribat Bani Fath: arba’un ‘am fi matahah Fathawiyah, available in Arabic.
Alexi Shalom (AS): I understand your mother was Jewish and she was from Lebanon. Can you tell me about her, how your parents met, and what she thought about your activity in the resistance movement?
William Nassar (WN): Let me begin by saying that I never felt Jewish. My mother rarely spoke about her Jewish past, but she had good contacts with her family, and she used to go visit them and they all spoke Arabic, and they never sympathized with Israel. My older aunt lived in Lebanon; she got married to a Jew from Lebanon, and had two sons. Both of them were very close to us, and I never felt that they saw anything different between us. Her daughter got married later on to a Muslim, and she had one son and three daughters, so they are all Muslims. Her son got married to a Lebanese Jew and they had one son and one daughter, but her son died young and his wife took the children and went to Israel, so I do not know anything about them. My only uncle from my mother’s side after 1956 went to Paris and lived there. He had two sons. They lived there. I visited them once. We were always on good relations with them; we never spoke politics. They were never sympathizers with Zionist ideas. They lived in Paris. They refused to go to Israel.
My mother’s name was Odette and she was from Wadi Abu Jmil, Beirut. Her father died there very young, so I do not remember him. He died before she got married. She was eighteen when he died, and then they went to Egypt, and she came with her mother to Jerusalem as tourists. She met my father who used to work in the Palestinian museum, which is now the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. And they loved each other and got married–that is it. I never had that feeling that having a Jewish mother makes any difference. My mother herself never felt that she was Jewish. She converted to Christianity so that she would be able to be married in 1936, over eighty years ago. We were actually a Christian family. We felt Christian and we never spoke about the Jewish past. She was very sympathetic with me when I was in prison. She visited me several times, and she always had quarrels with the Israeli authorities when she came to visit me. My father and my mother worked on the press on this issue. My mother was very active in Paris, especially with the leftist Jews there. She had some interviews in Europe about me and someone from Tunis sent me an article in French that was published in 1968 how she spoke about me, and the article is called “I am a Jew and my Son is a Fidayi.” My mother was Arab, and all her family was sympathetic with the Palestinians—they never left, and when they left Egypt they left because they were afraid after the 1956 war—the Sinai campaign. And they went to France. They refused to go to Israel. My uncle was there. My aunt got there after she got a divorce from her husband. He was Abramin Shalom. He was an Egyptian of Italian origin. And then she went to live with her son in England, and then proceeded to the United States where she lived. Especially for Jews, it was very common to go to Egypt. There were a lot of Jews there. We lived in Egypt for four years, from 1947 to 1951. There were a lot of Jews who were friends with my mother and my father. One of them was a singer, one of them was an artist, an actor in cinema; I distinctly remember a very kind woman who did not get married, by the name of Germine. She used to visit us all the time. She refused to leave Egypt, even after most of the Jews left Egypt. She died there, actually.
AS: Your colleague Ahmed Dabour writes that he heard the Zionists were attempting to bargain about your Judaism. In the English-language Fatah publication, “The Freedom Fighters,” it says that while you were in West Germany, the Israeli intelligence tried to influence you through your mother’s family. Can you talk about that? Are any of those things true?
WN: No. I went to Germany as a military trainer for the students and workers, and the Germans and the Israelis knew about it somehow. They tried to pursue and find out who was the trainer. They did not find me, actually, because I went to Germany anyway. But they started kicking out of Germany all those Palestinians who did not have a visa. Because my visa expired—I had a three-month visa and I was there for six months—I was kicked out. I went to Spain, actually, through France. I went to visit my uncle in Paris, and then I went to Spain.
AS: It was amazing to me to read about your story and then understand that at the time of your arrest you were only twenty-two years old. It seems like so much happened.
WN: I joined Fatah when I was nineteen years old, actually. And then I was at the University in Beirut and we were asked to smuggle arms, and we were cooperating with another group who was supposed to bring it to us, and I had to run away because somehow the group didn’t go to the rally point. Their bags were thrown away and they had to bring new bags with my name on them. When they were caught, actually, the Lebanese secret service known as the Premier Bureau was after me. I ran away to Syria, and then I went to Germany.
AS: Before you were in Fatah you were in the Ba’ath Movement, so why did you join Fatah specifically?
WN: I had been in the Ba’ath Party since I was fourteen years old. At that time Arab nationalism was a very important issue, and the Baathists were the strongest party in Jordan at that time—the strongest Arab nationalist party. We wanted a way to seek the liberation of Palestine, and that was one of the ways—to join the parties that fought for the liberation of Palestine. There was no Nasserist party in Jordan. The Nasserist group was very small, and the bigger group of Arab nationalists was the Ba’athists. I joined them in 1960. I was fourteen years old. I stayed with them until I was seventeen years old, that is, 1963. There was a coup in Syria—a Ba’athist Coup—and there was a countercoup by the Nasserists. And the Ba’athists started bombarding the Yarmouk camp. As a result of a disagreement, I left the party. Actually, we left the party as a group of students. That was in 1963. Two years later, Fatah started its military activities under the name of Assifa. We did not know about Fatah. I tried to find a way to these people. I had a large nationalist feeling, so I found a way to join in Jordan in 1965—in May probably. I continued with them. This is the history of fifty to fifty-two years in Fatah.
AS: I know you said you did not feel Jewish or consider yourself Jewish. But when you were in West Germany or in Spain or France, did you interact with any Jewish students who were part of leftist or anti-imperialist movements?
WN: No, actually. In Germany we were all grouped, my brother and his friends, we were all together all the time. We did not have time to meet up with others. I wanted to do this, actually, to find others. It was in Spain that I found some Arab students of Palestinian descent, and we were all the time together. I did not meet any Jews, students or others, neither in Germany nor in Spain. I met some Jews who were family in France when I went to Spain through France, in Paris.
AS: Part of your story that really amazes me is the number of countries that you ended up going to: China, North Vietnam, Algeria, Syria, West Germany, Spain. Was it strange to you that the Chinese people wanted to help you? Or did you feel like you were part of one global movement?
WN: I have not been to North Vietnam. This is just what is claimed in journalism. I went to China to do a military course about the strategy and tactics, according to Mao. We were thirty people, most of them [were then] or became later some of the first commanders of Fatah and we stayed several months there. I came back to Syria. It was not strange to me. At the time of Mao, China tried to help all resistance movements all around the world. They did not ask about ideology. For them to be a nationalist was a resistance movement. Contrary to Cuba and the Soviet Union at that time, the Chinese helped all the nationalist groups. In China we found Pakistani groups that were Muslim, we found African groups, all national liberation movement. It. was not strange actually. We were the first Fatah group to go there. We learned a lot from them. It is not applicable these days. At the time it might have been applicable. But today it could not work.
AS: When you were arrested, it was with Kamal Nammari, and he also had a Jewish mother. He was also of Jewish descent and even despite the fact that he was from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and you were from Fatah that you ended up together, even being arrested together.
WN: Kamal Nammari is in Jordan now. When I met him in Jerusalem in 1968, he said how can I introduce you to my friends? I need an alibi. I said tell them that you are my cousin from my mother’s side. He said, “No this is impossible.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because my mother is Jewish and everybody in Jerusalem knows my mother is Jewish.” I said, “Well you can do that now and say that I am your cousin because my mother is also a Jew.” Actually, I saw him once before in Jordan, I was with Yasser Arafat in an area which was an Iraqi camp after the war near the Syrian border. And Arafat asked me to meet a man whom I would meet later in Jerusalem. He introduced me to Kamal Nammari and said when you go to Jerusalem go and train his men, they have a group and some arms, and they need training. And you might go out with him in military actions. He was not at that time from al-Jabha [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine]. There was a group in Jerusalem at that time called Jabhat al-Nidal al-Sha’abi [Palestinian Popular Struggle Front]. This group was a united front of all organizations in Jerusalem: Fatah—there was no Jabha at that time—Qawmiyyin al-Arab [Arab Nationalist Movement] which was the Arab nationalist group, who were Nasserists. There were the Ba’athists, there were the Communists, so they all formed a new front in Jerusalem together. The head of the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front was in prison, so Kamal Nammari replaced him. And I when I went to Jerusalem, he was the deputy in Jerusalem for this group, not for the Popular Front.
AS: In Nammari’s 1979 UN Testimony, he testified that you both were singled out by the Israelis for having Jewish mothers. Could you talk about how they treated you differently or oppressed you more for having a Jewish family?
WN: Well, you know, they were harsher on us during interrogation. After interrogation, I knew the Israelis had a systematic and harsh interrogation tactic. They tortured me. They did it with everybody. But they treated us bad after that in prison, not during interrogation. At the beginning of interrogation, actually, we were taken to a military camp for forty days, because when I was sent back to Ramleh prison I found Kamal there, two weeks before me. They thought that they would get from us more than they would get from others. They tried to convince me to work with them. They promised money, even nationality, new citizenship in South America—I do not know what. When I refused, they used force with me. In 1969, they took us both with three others that they called considered leaders of the prisoners to Ashkelon and they actually systematically tortured us three times a day for five or six days, until I could not move. I tried to commit suicide.
AS: We have talked about how the Israelis treated you. But in all of the texts, everybody, including Yasser Arafat himself, speak about your Jewish mother and how you would be considered Jewish under the Israeli law, with no hesitation and even with pride in having a comrade such as yourself. There is even one story of your father talking to a commando who named himself William after you, because he was so inspired. How did other Palestinians feel about you being Jewish? I have only seen positive things, but what is your feeling about how they viewed you?
WN: It did not make any difference. They were very proud of me. Especially in prison, I was most of the time the general commissioner of the prison. I represented them in front of the Red Cross, and even the administration of the prison. I was the general commissioner of education for all prisoners. My writings about Fatah, the history of Fatah, the ideology of Fatah—it has no ideology but the thoughts of Fatah, the principles of Fatah, were taught everywhere in a booklet that I wrote in prison. There were several people using my name actually. When I got out of prison there were three in Lebanon alone. I asked them to change their name. One of them was in the South and he used my name to terrorize people in the South. And then, another one was Taysir, and he changed his name when he came back to Palestine in 1993 or 94. He used his original name again, after years being called William. Now there is another one still in Lebanon. He is a singer.