John Legend, Anthony Bourdain & Shifting Use of the 'P' Word in America

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Growing up, I rarely heard the ‘P’ word uttered in my suburban Atlanta community, and not once did I hear it spoken in my Hebrew school at our family’s conservative synagogue, where teachers spoke of “them” in quick, hushed tones.
And whenever the ‘P’ word was mentioned, whether on CNN or ABC News, it was always accompanied by images of bloodied streets, of people who looked like me grieving, of extremists pointing guns toward the heavens. The message growing up in America, and in the American Jewish community, was clear: Palestinians were a people so evil as to not be named, unless appropriately malevolent images befitting such a people could be simultaneously conjured.
Palestinians were not human, their existence inhumane. This is what I was taught. And this is what I still believed when, in 2002, a Palestinian man planted a bomb at Hebrew University which injured my wife and killed the two American friends with whom she was sitting.
In 2002, in a post-9/11 America fomenting the early stages of a societal, systemic Islamophobia, this is what mainstream America believed as well. The ‘P’ word was used mostly to demonize, not to humanize.
But things have changed dramatically in American discourse in the last few years, mirroring a personal change which has happened within me over the last decade. It is a change which symbolically can be represented by two remarkable moments from this week, both of which happened on May 19.

In the first, John Legend gave the commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania on the power of love. Within that speech, Legend did something remarkable, particularly on the hallowed grounds of an Ivy League institution: he challenged students, and America, to recognize the humanity of Palestinians.

[Love is] a pretty radical notion. It means your daughter or son, your neighbor’s daughter or son and the daughters and sons of people who live thousands of miles away, all deserve the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It means we let go of fear and see each other’s humanity.
It means we don’t see Trayvon Martin as a walking stereotype, a weaponized human. We see him as a boy who deserves the chance to grow into a man, even if he makes boyish mistakes along the way. It means American lives don’t count more than Iraqi lives.
It means we see a young Palestinian kid not as a future security threat or demographic challenge, but as a future father, mother and lover. It means that the nearly 300 kidnapped girls in Nigeria aren’t just their problem. They’re “our” girls too. It’s actually quite a challenge to love humankind in this way.

As Steven Salaita noted, this mention of Palestinians by Legend should not be taken lightly, for it represents our shifting dialogue in America.

Legend’s mention of Palestinians might not seem like a big deal, one line out of hundreds, ten seconds of twenty minutes. It is consequential, though. It requires courage for a high-earner to humanize Palestinians, especially in the rarefied domain of the Ivy League. In the United States, as elsewhere, a simple rule prevails: the more elite the community, the more languid the discourse.
Thus far, Legend has received no backlash, which is extraordinary. Even the most tepid overture to Palestinian humanity can result in [pro-Israel] histrionics. Legend included Palestinians in an uncomplicated appeal to universal justice. It sounded natural, reasonable, even unremarkable. In terms of the historical (and contemporaneous) volatility of Palestine in public discourse, Legend’s single sentence represented an important symbolic moment.

On the very same day as Legend’s commencement speech, Anthony Bourdain – who hosts CNN’s Parts Unknown – recorded himself accepting a “Courage and Conscience Award” from the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Why did Bourdain receive such an award? Because in 2013, one of his episodes focused upon Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, showing the everyday lives and cooking of ordinary people.
His words about Palestinians in this short acceptance are powerful, and include the line, The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity.
Now, we as a society still suffer from deep-seated Islamophobia, and mainstream media outlets continue to fail by rarely exposing not just the intense suffering of Palestinians, but their humanity as well. A humanity we share.
If a just and equitable end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to happen, the humanity of both sides will have to be presented normatively to American audiences. That is, if we hope for the United States to play any role in bringing about a lasting peace in the region.
It is something I have tried to do in my book, in my writing, and something others – such as Legend and Bourdain – are now trying to do. Ten years ago, such public statements by mainstream figures would have been met with intense opposition.
Today, Legend and Bourdain are receiving nothing but nods and applause. Hopefully U.S. politicians will hear that applause as it becomes louder, and as more in America are exposed to the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians.


What Do You Buy For the Children
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, just out from Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.