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Mohammed el-Kurd receives Calgary Peace Prize
Mount Royal University administrators distanced themselves from the event honouring the Palestinian journalist, poet and activist after baseless accusations of antisemitism from the usual suspects.
Palestinian journalist, poet and activist Mohammed el-Kurd received the Calgary Peace Prize on May 18 from the Consortium for Peace Studies at an online event featuring a panel discussion on the connections between Indigenous, Palestinian and Black struggles.
While the consortium has been affiliated with MRU’s Peace and Conflict Studies program since 2016, the school distanced itself from the prize this year after pro-Israel groups objected to this year’s choice of recipient. (More on that later.)
Mark Muhannad Ayyash, a Mount Royal University (MRU) sociologist who is Palestinian, oversees the prize, with the recipient selected by a six-person committee of Calgarians dedicated to the peace movement, and hosted the event.
El-Kurd, who turned 25 on May 15, is the first-ever Palestine correspondent for The Nation, America’s oldest magazine, and has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and BBC.
He became the face of the #SaveSheikhJarrah campaign in 2021, when Israeli settlers sought to evict Palestinian families, including el-Kurd’s, from the East Jerusalem homes they’ve lived in for decades, arguing the homes are on land purchased by two Jewish-owned trusts 150 years ago.
“I can't believe I'm already getting a peace prize. I thought you needed to bomb the shit out of some place to get those,” he joked, in reference to the Nobel Peace Prizes won by former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who oversaw the vicious bombing of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and president Barack Obama, who bombed Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia 563 times in his presidency.
El-Kurd received his prize on the same day of the annual “flag march,” in which ultranationalist Israeli settlers march through Jerusalem, chanting slogans like “Death to the Arabs” and “May your village burn.”
There’s a certain irony, el-Kurd noted, in him receiving a peace prize, given how talk of “peace” is frequently used as a rhetorical weapon to justify the Palestinians’ subjugation:
You hear that word all the time and you're almost always accused of being reluctant to be peaceful. You're always accused of not wanting to live in peace. [The Israelis] dig their daggers in our lands, in our backs, and they twist their daggers, and then they ask us, ‘why don't you want peace?’ They kill our parents, they steal our homes and they ask us, ‘why don't you want peace?’
In order for Palestinians to have peace, they must also have security, el-Kurd added.
“Security doesn’t have to mean owning nukes and rockets, bombing people, and shoot-to-kill policies — not that kind of security,” he said. “[But] a security in which there are no refugees, a security in which there are no prisons, a security in which everybody has access to food and shelter, and protection, a security in which everybody has access to dignity and human life.”
While events like the flag march, and Israeli military attacks on the West Bank and Gaza, are visible expressions of the Israeli state’s brutality, el-Kurd said one must not lose sight of the daily, structural violence of checkpoints, settlements, mass arrests, home demolitions, torture and constant surveillance.
“The violence we live under does not have to be spectacular in order for it to matter,” he said.
The panel discussion was composed of el-Kurd, journalist and author Desmond Cole, and University of Buffalo academic Rinaldo Walcott — both of whom are Black — nêhiyaw writer, educator and organizer Erica Violet Lee, and Palestinian policy analyst Yara Hawari.
Walcott, invoking Franz Fanon’s anti-colonial theories, said Eurocentric notions of peace and cooperation serve “to shape how colonized people respond to the violence being enacted on them.”
For me, the question is never simply one of peace that somehow is marinated in something called non-violence, but the question is, how should we respond to our suffering? And when our suffering is conceived and executed into forms of violence, do we have the right to respond to that violence with violence? And, of course, my answer to that is yes.
No doubt, that answer will leave some, including myself, uncomfortable. But it’s worth noting, as el-Kurd did in his opening remarks, the way Ukrainian violence against Russian occupation is glorified, whereas Palestinian violence against Israeli occupation is demonized, in the western imagination.
In order to get around that apparent contradiction, Israel’s defenders claim it’s actually Israelis who are Indigenous people engaging in anti-colonial violence. In order to believe this, you have to ignore the literal settler colonialism Israel practices in Jerusalem and the West Bank, its nuclear weapons program and its integral role in U.S. Empire.
Hawari, who resides in Ramallah, shared el-Kurd’s view that notions of peace in the Middle East ignore the fundamental power imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians — a product of the apartheid system Israel operates between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River.
“When you have an entire population placed at the mercy of another, when you have a placated population, that is not peace,” Hawari said.
Lee observed that words like ‘peace,’ ‘decolonization,’ ‘violence’ and ‘justice’ demonstrate "the “limitations of colonial language.”
“We're being so limited and caged in by these languages, by these concepts, that are not meant to serve us,” she noted.
Cole, picking up on el-Kurd’s description of violence in his initial remarks, said the focus on physical, in-your-face violence “obscures the mundane” — namely, the “structure of everyday violence that supports and keeps everything moving.”
We're not at a place where we can talk about either justice or peace. We can only talk about fighting towards liberation, fighting against settler colonial violence, fighting against racism, and all other forms of oppression, and getting to a space where once we have reduced the great weight of these violences, then maybe we can begin to conceive peace.
Describing the dilemma of a writer living under military occupation, el-Kurd wrote in one of his poems:
A woman tells him a pen is a sword.
What’s a pen to a rifle?
Another fed him a sonnet.
If Shakespeare was from here he wouldn’t be writing.
While “writing and cultural production” has a valuable role to play in shifting public opinion, El-Kurd said it’s even more important that it spark action. “Otherwise, it’s just theatre; otherwise, it’s just self-indulgent.”
Lee said there’s no higher calling than “to be a poet and a writer, and want to create something beautiful in the face of the constant shit we deal with as colonized people.”
“To create something in the face of so much destruction wrought upon us is the best kind of life and I wouldn't trade that resistance for anything,” she said.
Cole, who wrote the 2020 book The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, described writing as a deeply personal form of self-expression.
“The inner anxieties and fears and joys and excitements and responses that I have in the world are worth putting down even if nobody else sees them, because they validate me,” he explained.
“When somebody says something in hip-hop, or in dance, that connects with me spiritually and emotionally, I think that is an unlocking that can lead to the political … but that's not necessarily the point of it.”
For Hawari, writing and art is an important part of the anti-colonial struggle, which cannot be separated from the broader liberation project:
Everyone has their place and can contribute in different and important ways. But at the same time, I think it's important that we don't separate and compartmentalize these forms of resistance in the struggle. By that, I mean that they're connected; they don't exist on their own. And to insist that they do, more often than not, is an effort to depoliticize.
Artists are a crucial asset in the anti-colonial struggle because of their creative ability to envision the “possibility of new formations of community,” Walcott said.
A few groups with a track record of vociferously supporting any and every Israeli action apparently attempted to have the event shut down, depicting el-Kurd as not just someone whose perspective on Israel they don’t share, but practically a terrorist threat. In his opening remarks, El-Kurd called this vilification campaign a “glaring red herring.”
Honest Reporting Canada (HRC), a pro-Israel media watchdog, sent two “action alerts” to its thousands of subscribers urging them to pester MRU about the event, characterizing el-Kurd a purveyour of “anti-Israel disinformation.” Anyone familiar with HRC’s work knows that what they mean by ‘disinformation’ is any information that contradicts what the increasingly openly fascistic Israeli government says.
So extreme is HRC’s commitment to the Israeli far-right’s obscurantist narrative that it insists media refer to the West Bank by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria, and prefers media refer to illegal settlements in the West Bank as “neighbourhoods.”
The International Legal Forum, whose CEO Arsen Ofstrovsky defended the “Death to the Arabs” settler march as no different than British people marching in London, French people marching in Paris or Americans marching in Washington, demanded MRU “immediately revoke” el-Kurd’s award.
The Jewish Federation of Calgary, which purports to represent “every member” of the Jewish community but excludes anyone who doesn’t share its board’s myopic views on Israel, sent out an email to supporters calling el-Kurd “clearly and wholly unfit for such an award.”
The fed said they’re “in direct contact” with Ayyash’s bosses at MRU and “continue to make our position very clear.”
Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC), a Holocaust education group that doubles as a hardline pro-Israel lobbying organization, with the latter greatly undermining the important work of the former, demanded the university disavow the event with el-Kurd, whom the group accused of having a “history of antisemitism.”
To justify this deplatforming campaign, FSWC cited a defamatory dossier on el-Kurd the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published and his profile on Canary Mission, a notorious blacklisting page that anonymously accuses pro-Palestine activists of antisemitism and supporting terrorism through decontextualized remarks.
The ADL, which like FSWC regards the threat of Palestinians as on par with that of the far-right, says el-Kurd is guilty of “unvarnished, vicious antisemitism.” Accusing el-Kurd of perpetrating an antisemitic blood libel, the ADL quotes a passage in his book Rifqa, which says “[Israelis] harvest organs of the martyred, feed their warriors our own.”
In terms of organ harvesting, the former head of the Israel’s Abu Kabir forensic institute Dr. Jehuda Hiss, has admitted that in the 1990s, forensic pathologists at his clinic harvested the organs and skin of dead Palestinians, Israelis and foreign workers without their families’ consent, although he added that the practice ended in 2000. The Israeli Health Ministry insists this was all consensual and, as a result, nobody has been criminally charged for this body snatching.
Moreover, the ADL glosses over the fact that Rifqa is a book of poetry, not journalism, making it appear as if el-Kurd was literally accusing Israeli soldiers of eating Palestinian organs, which he is clearly not. I find it hard to believe the ADL’s omission was a mere oversight.
The ADL also accuses el-Kurd of appropriating “Holocaust terminology to implicate a non-Israeli Jewish person in the alleged actions of Israel” based on a Twitter exchange with pro-Israel activist Ben Freeman, who explicitly defended Israel’s actions by comparing Palestinian violence to the Holocaust.
It’s entirely fair to implicate Freeman in the actions he publicly endorses. This has nothing to do with Freeman’s ethnic or cultural identity. It is Freeman, not el-Kurd, who constantly conflates Jewish people with the State of Israel.
Comparing Israel to the Nazis is unwise, and not something I would do, but when figures like Freeman constantly use their pulpit to compare Palestinians to Nazis, the temptation for a Palestinian to suggest the reverse is entirely understandable.
The university dissociated itself from the prize, deleting the event’s page from its website, which these groups characterized as a result of their pressure.
B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn, a twice-failed Toronto-area federal Conservative candidate, said the university’s dissociation demonstrates that the prize is “no longer the esteemed accolade it once was.”
“This current rendition of the award is an afront to its past recipients and it should no longer be characterized as a celebration of peace-loving persons,” Mostyn said.
FSWC director of allyship and community relations Dan Panneton pointed out MRU has previously associated with the prize, including when it was given to respected Jewish jurist Rosalie Abella in 2019. For this reason, FSWC said, MRU president Tim Rahilly must issue a statement “renouncing” the Calgary Peace Prize and personally “disavowing” el-Kurd.
Panneton’s statement reads in part:
While the university has distanced itself from the award, its past involvement in the award raises questions and requires clarification. If MRU indeed does not have any association with the Calgary Peace Prize, it must make this very clear to its entire community by renouncing the Calgary Peace Prize and assuring to the public that there will be no association in the future.
He raises a valid point about MRU’s apparent inconsistency here, but the real question is why MRU supports the Peace Prize until it’s given to someone pro-Israel lobbyists disapprove of.
Panneton first came on my radar for his laudable efforts combatting the Canadian far-right, and his willingness to address the veneration of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, a courageous stance in the current geopolitical moment.
This is precisely why his active participation in a broader campaign to banish Palestinian perspectives from public discourse, a project which dovetails entirely with the Israeli far-right’s agenda, is so profoundly disappointing.