The Historical and Ongoing Censorship of Palestinian Music and Art

في قُدْسي ضَمَّدْتُ جِراحي
وَبَثَثْتُ هُمومي للهِ
وَحَمَلْتُ الرُّوحَ عَلى كَفِّي
مِنْ أَجْلِ فِلَسْطينَ ٱلعَرَبِيَهْ

Recently, music giants Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music have removed Mohammed Assaf’s Dammi Falastini (My Blood is Palestinian). Spotify claimed the song was removed at the request of the distributor, however Assaf said he received an email from Spotify accusing him of “inciting against Israel.” Though the song has been used as an anthem for the Free Palestine Movement, the song itself is solely about Palestinian identity and pride and doesn’t mention Israel at all. The song’s removal came after Zionist group We Believe in Israel gathered signatures for the removal of thousands of “anti-Israel” songs such as Assaf’s.

This is only the latest in the censorship of Palestinian artists, which goes back to before the first Nakbah, which was the official start of the occupation in Palestine when control of the area was transferred from the Ottoman Empire over to Britain. Nuh Ibrahim, a young poet in British-occupied Palestine had his song collection banned after it gained immense popularity. He was later imprisoned for his poem, which became the chant, “Plan it, Mr. Dill,” mocking General Dill, the commander in chief of the British occupying army. Not long after, in 1938 when he was only 25, he was shot and killed by British soldiers.

One of the most catastrophic deaths was the assassination of writer Ghassan Kanafani in 1972 by the Israeli foreign intelligence service, Mossad. He was heavily involved with the Popular Front for Palestinian Liberation (PFPL), one of the groups forming the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which is the official representation of the state of Palestine. Kanafani was stateless for a large portion of his life and spent every moment since childhood dedicated to Palestinian liberation. His works were lucid, transformative, and many claim revolutionary in the Arab world. His obituary reads, “He was a commando who never fired a gun, whose weapon was a ball-point pen, and his arena the newspaper pages.”

More recently, countless Palestinian activists and journalists have had their social media accounts suspended, only being reinstated after outrage from their communities. “With less staff and attention to content moderation and user safety, people are more susceptible to online attacks, censorship and hacking attempts. And as usual, Palestinians are the canary in the coal mine,” Palestinian digital rights expert and policy analyst Marwa Fatafta told Al Jazeera, referring to Twitter. This alarming trend continues to grow, as each day trusted media outlets find new ways to violate the trust of viewers and readers.

The Freedom Theatre, established in 2006 in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, has repeatedly been met with violence and imprisonment for those associated. In 2022, chairman Bilal Al-Saadi was arrested and sentenced to six months of administrative detention, a sentence that requires neither a charge nor a trial, and can be renewed repeatedly. Since and prior to that, several members were arrested, including Yahya Zubeidi, who was sentenced to sixteen years in prison.

The founder of the theater, Juliano Mer-Khamis, was radical and wildly controversial amongst Palestinians. He was killed by an unknown gunman in 2011, an event which he himself predicted. While some involved in the Theatre believe his killer was a conservative Palestinian upset with the content of his plays, many believe it was an attempt by Israeli authorities to silence the theater, which had many politically-motivated productions and advocated for Palestinian liberation.

The Freedom Theatre, along with many other Palestinian cultural organizations, has been forced to reduce their funding significantly (80% in the case of the Freedom Theatre) due to demands that they depoliticize their work or lose their money.

One more notable act of silencing was the imprisonment of poet Dareen Tatour in 2015. She was arrested because of a poem she posted to Facebook titled Resist, My People, Resist Them. In her poem, Tatour writes “In Jerusalem, I dressed my wounds and breathed my sorrows / For an Arab Palestine. / I will not succumb to the ‘peaceful solution,’ / Never lower my flags / Until I evict them from my land.” Israeli authorities claimed her poem was inciting violence and put her on house arrest for three years before imprisoning her.

Nearly endless is the list of Palestinian artists who have had their work removed and destroyed, been arrested and imprisoned, or been assassinated. Instead of continuing to list them, though, I’d like to turn your attention to the common thread between all these artists, which is that they were silenced for suggesting anything other than peace. It may not be obvious, but nonviolence is often, if not always, the most violent stance to take. We all inherently know that some violence is justified. We do not condemn battered women who kill their captors to escape. Yet, Joe Biden and the United States have condemned the captive people of Palestine for giving up on peaceful resistance, instead of condemning Palestine’s captors.

It is notable that disdain for intellectuals and the arts is one of Laurence Britt’s early warning signs of a fascist government. Many of these artists are transgressive and controversial, even among Palestinians. Many of them reject peaceful solutions, especially those younger artists in recent years who have generations above them who have all lived in terror together. However, this “call to violence,” as Israeli authorities love to call it, is not without historical context. Israel’s descent into fascism has been noted for years by Israelis and others across the world. To be subjected to such a government, there is sometimes nothing to do but throw rocks. How dare we judge people who have spent their entire lives in an open-air prison, who have seen their children and their children’s children grow up there? Instead of criminalizing and demonizing the struggle against occupation, perhaps our government could dare to end the genocide of Palestinians.

Sometimes violence is quiet. Songs being taken down, artists depoliticizing, and media being lost in an algorithm are all the results of quiet acts of violence against Palestinians. This happens in every struggle between an oppressive power and the people it oppresses. In the U.S. alone, think of the banning of books that depict LGBT+ characters, M.I.A’s song Paper Planes (which was a protest to the government denying her visa) being censored by MTV, Sinead O’Connor being banned from SNL for protesting the Catholic church, or the Chicks being condemned by President Bush for their political stance regarding 9/11 and Islamophobia. This will continue to happen as long as there are power structures with interests, but the most important thing is that we see it, acknowledge it, and demand better treatment of our artists.

Witnessing the Censored Exhibit, “A Child’s View from Gaza.”. Photo by Mona Damluji.

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