Ron Stockton: Greetings everyone. This is Ron Stockton. I’m a retired professor of political science from the University of Michigan Dearborn. I want to tell you about an amazing and unique project involving Palestinian history. In 2021, my former student, Amine Zreik, contacted me and suggested that I meet Mr. Adel Bseiso. Adel was in possession of scores of deeds and proof of purchase agreements to property his family owned in pre-state Palestine, the area of what is today Beersheba. He was hoping to figure out a way to make this amazing treasure of data available to the public. The three of us later met several times by Zoom and worked on strategies of finding a way major institution to take the materials and make them available to researchers, students, and anyone else. Now in 2023, this project is operational and it’s quite remarkable. In a series of three interviews, we will explore how this project came about, how the digital archive was created at Columbia University, and what is in it.
The first interview will be with Amine Zreik. We’ll talk about his background and how he came to meet Mr. Bseiso and be interested in this process. The second interview will be with Adel Bseiso. He will tell you about himself, his family, and his amazing and heroic grandfather who lost his land but managed to save these family resources from confiscation or destruction during the 1948 Nakba. This rescue came at some personal cost to him. The third interview will also be with Adel Bseiso who will tell you about the archival collection and how you can access it.
Ron Stockton: Amine, why don’t you tell me about yourself. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Amine Zreik: I was born in Detroit, Michigan in Hutzel Hospital and grew up in the city of Dearborn, which is a neighboring smaller city. I grew up in Dearborn, pretty much my entire childhood and adolescent years. Eventually I attended Fordson High School and from there proceeded to my undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan Dearborn campus. I spent most of my time, pretty much my first 21 years of life in Dearborn, Michigan.
Ron Stockton: Tell me about your law training.
Amine Zreik: After completing my undergraduate studies, I moved to New York City for about five to six years where I started a master’s degree at Columbia University. Then I jumped into a PhD program at NYU. A year and a half into the program at NYU, I no longer saw myself interested in the PhD and academic route, so I decided to quickly transition to law school. From there I decided to attend Western State College of Law, which is in southern California in the city of Irvine. I went to law school in southern California for about four years and completed my juris doctorate.
Ron Stockton: What are you doing now?
Amine Zreik: Currently I’m an assistant district attorney with the San Francisco district attorney’s office. I’m a prosecutor here in the city and have been practicing for about ten months. I’ve been a prosecutor for nine months. Upon completing my legal studies and training, I did a post-bar internship with the San Francisco district attorney’s office and then after completing the post-bar I realized how much I enjoy being a trial attorney. I decided to start my career as a prosecutor so I could acquire as much trial experience, court experience, and overall harness my capability as a good trial attorney.
Ron Stockton: Tell me which of these training is going to be most helpful for you as you approach this project.
Amine Zreik: I believe just in general my experience in terms of writing motions, understanding how to make arguments, and my trial experience will enhance my capability in terms of bringing forth a legal framework to the project. I foresee this project going into the international law realm. So at least having a micro-background in prosecution will enable me to use it on a larger scale in the coming years when it hopefully reaches an international scale in terms of maybe reparations or some sort of recognition, acknowledgement of war crimes, and the confiscation of land. I believe that my background in prosecution would be beneficial in terms of bringing forth arguments and framing this into a legal argument in the future.
Ron Stockton: This is very interesting. You just raised some points that are different from how I would approach this. As an academic, my goal is to get the data out there so researchers can study it. Your goal is much different. You see this as an ongoing project. It doesn’t just stop with making it available. When I deposit my research materials into the archive in Ann Arbor, it just is there. If people use it, they can. But you see an ongoing project.
Amine Zreik: Yes, because it’s an ongoing situation in the Middle East. It hasn’t come to an end. We believe that the project is valuable academically in terms of raising public awareness, bringing forth research, and enhancing the research on Palestine. It also has benefits that would be used in other realms, such as the legal realm in terms of establishing sovereignty ownership of land, which is a highly contested debate and narrative among the Arab-Israeli conflict and Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I believe this project would be beneficial in multiple realms. I do believe that the first and foremost, most important realm is bringing this to the public eye, to researchers, to academicians. The exposure that these deeds do exist, that Palestine and Palestinians were of ownership of these lands and were the sovereign people prior to the Nakba in 1948. I believe this narrative would enhance reconciliatory dialogue as well as the debate on whether Palestinians are entitled to some sort of reparation or if they are indeed owners of those contested lands.
Ron Stockton: Very interesting. You were my student, and I had a class on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I would love for this project to have been operational at the time so I could have sent you and my other students off with the assignment to find three or four of these titles and look at where they are today within this now modern city of Beersheba. What happened to that land, where is it, and what would it be worth today. That would have been an amazing project, but it would have been a project that would have worked at one level. Now there are other levels. Somebody, sometime, I hope, is going to turn this into a doctoral research project and write a dissertation and some established scholar may want to write a book on this. This is very valuable data as I see it. There’s nothing quite like this as far as I know available to researchers. What an amazing project. You have a Lebanese heritage?
Amine Zreik: Yes.
Ron Stockton: You’re not Palestinian, I’m not Palestinian. Yet, you’re as passionate as a Palestinian on this project. Tell me why you’re so passionate about this project.
Amine Zreik: Professor Stockton, I’m very passionate about this project because when I first met Mr. Bseiso himself, it took us months before we actually discussed the existence of these artifacts, the family documents. I became so interested in this project because when I first saw the documents in person, I’ve never seen anything like it. It was fascinating. I never thought I’d see stamped, legally endorsed documents of Palestinian-owned deeds. I never came across anything like that in my life before. I was so fascinated that Mr. Bseiso had these documents, and he was so casual about it. When he first showed me, I was like, this is amazing. We have to show the world. That was my first impression – we have to show the world. This has to get out there. Because when I first saw the documents, as much as I‘ve been studying Middle Eastern studies, and I have a background in political science, I’ve never had any exposure to artifacts that go back to Palestine 90, 100 years old. Especially artifacts that are to the core essence of the debate of whether or not those land deeds do exist. I was in shock and awe and wanted to be part of this. Another reason became very interested in this project is the fact that, true, I am of Lebanese heritage, but I tend to think of myself as an Arab American. Palestine is a section of the overall Arab history of the region. Growing up I did visit Lebanon many times, so I had the unfortunate experience of experiencing arial bombardments by neighboring Israeli air forces and I saw the destruction of war. I went to some parts of old Beirut, which preserved the civil war artifacts and the destroyed buildings. I saw the damage and how important this conflict was not just to the Palestinian identity, but to Arab identity as a whole. We believe that the Palestinian struggle is one compartment of the overall Arab struggle of unification as well as liberation. So, I do consider Palestinians, although we are not Lebanese altogether, they are Arabs and we consider them our neighbors, our brothers and sisters. There is an underlying common denominator as an Arab people. From a professional and just a humanistic perspective, I was excited because I had never seen such old artifacts like this before. Also, coming from a Lebanese Arab background, I felt that this was just something I couldn’t pass up. As an Arab I felt there was a duty, especially with my background in law and politics. I thought this would be the perfect intersection of opportunity and studies and didn’t want to pass it up.
Ron Stockton: My reaction was very similar, not as an Arab because I don’t have that heritage, but I thought, this is an amazing archive of material. There’s nothing quite like it that I know of, so we need to move on this. We have both put a lot of passion into this project and commitment. Tell me how you met Mr. Bseiso.
Amine Zreik: This is a very funny story. I like to go to the gym every day, and when I was in law school, I believe it was around the summer of 2020, which is near the last year of law school, I went to LA Fitness in Irvine, the Tustin location. When I was first entering, I typically started my workout with a good run, maybe 30 or 40 minutes. When I was walking towards the treadmill, I saw this older fellow. When I say older, not too old, but obviously older than me. He was doing long jumps. I was impressed. I saw him doing a very far leap for someone I considered of his age, I was like, oh wow, you’ve got jumps. So, I went up to him and told him, just blatantly, hey old man – as a joke – you can jump. He laughed. He’s like, yeah, you can see the other jumps I do too. From there it was a humorous interaction and we just shook hands. From there we just became friends, gym friends. It took weeks before I found out of his Arab heritage, his Palestinian background or any of that. It took multiple visits to the gym and interacting with each other until we became very close where we went out for breakfast. Sounds like a love story. He had much life experience, I was in law school, so I was enduring a lot of stress. It was good having an older mentor who would talk to me, remind me, and give me encouraging words to strengthen my spirit to continue my studies in law school. Mr. Bseiso and I became gym friends, eventually became really good friends from that point. At one point he invited me to his house and then he exposed all these documents, these artifacts, 55 of them. I was like, wow.
Ron Stockton: I remember when you first told me he had the highest vertical jump I’ve ever seen.
Amine Zreik: It was definitely better than mine at that time because I was busy studying. When I saw him, I was like, this guy’s got a really good vertical jump. I was impressed.
Ron Stockton: Why did you drag me into this project? Drag in a friendly way.
Amine Zreik: You were not only my professor in the University of Michigan Dearborn, but I grew very fond of your teaching capabilities and ability and liked the way you taught students at the university. I took multiple courses with you, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict course, which provided an objective narrative of the conflict, the resolutions, the problems, and all the historical and contemporary problems with the evolution of the conflict. You were also the chair of the Model Arab League, which drew me in at the University of Michigan Dearborn. Now the Model Arab League was the equivalent to the UN Model League for undergraduate students where they would take a country, represent that country and its policies, and would go to negotiations and debates and eventually represent that country to the best of their ability. University of Michigan Dearborn under Professor Stockton’s reign, so to speak, was always victorious in bringing in the most awards for most outstanding delegates and I took two awards of most outstanding delegate. Then I took the third year, the honorable delegate award. I believe that you were very interested in the research and that this project would interest you. So, I thought, if I’m going to drag any professor it’s going to be one of my favorite professors, if not my favorite, who inspired me to continue researching and working in this field. That’s why I dragged you, Professor Stockton.
Ron Stockton: Well, I’m so glad that you did because as soon as you told me, I was very excited. By the way, you were always a fantastic Model Arab League representative. I think that gives you good training to be a lawyer because your job is to represent your country and some years you get Palestine, some years you get Iraq. These countries have positions all over the place and it’s your job to represent them. I think you came out with unique skills that I think were very valuable to you. What else do we need to talk about? What would you like to see in ten years in terms of this project?
Amine Zreik: This is my favorite question. I don’t know where this project will be in ten years, nor do I have a cement plan. What I would like to see is in the first two years following this interview is public exposure and establishing the archive in Columbia University. I would like to see it maybe five, ten years from now being used as a resource, these documents actually being used for furthering legal studies as well as legal action, maybe one day where there’s another peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians. There would be not only the Bseiso family collection, but maybe this might incentivize all Palestinian families with remaining deeds and documents to come together to establish a collective Palestinian archive. I actually gave this idea to Professor Khalidi of Columbia University and he thought it was a good idea, because from my understanding, his family also has an independent, established archive for their documents and artifacts. I asked him, has there ever been a uniform effort between all these dominant families that do have these documents and deeds to come together, maybe establish a collective Palestinian archive of ownership and he told me he doesn’t know of any. I thought this could be the start; one domino to the next. In ten years, I would like to see this come together, more momentum among all Palestinians, and used as a resource however it may be – negotiations for reparations, whatever discussions. I think just seeing it expand is where I would like to see it ten years from now.
Ron Stockton: This is good. I like these ideas. Any more thoughts you want to share?
Amine Zreik: Yes, the last thing I would like to mention is how we came about establishing the archive at Columbia University. You were the first professor that I discussed it with and you suggested I talk to Professor Khalidi, who I did have as a professor when I was attending Columbia for my first master’s degree. I reached out to Professor Khalidi. He thought this was a fascinating collection of deeds, land agreements, etc., and told me he’ll put me in contact with the library and the archive librarians who work around establishing archives. It was a long and tenuous process, but after many months, actually a year and a half, we finally established a finding aide archive at Columbia University, the first of its kind, as well as the DLC, which is a digital library collection. This took a year of negotiating where I had to use my legal skills in negotiating the actual deed to Columbia University. Mr. Bseiso and I finally came to an agreement, we negotiated a gift deed with terms and conditions, where they establish an archive that would be disclosed and accessible to their researchers, their professors, all academicians, and students who would be interested in researching this subject.
Ron Stockton: That’s wonderful. From the time we started, that’s exactly what I was hoping would come about, that some major university would take this under their wing and create an archive and make it available. Because you don’t have to go physically there, you can go to the Internet. This is the age of the Internet. It’s available anywhere in the world for people who want to study, use this as a resource for their research or whatever it may be.
Amine Zreik: Yes, we believe that this project hopefully is going to enhance the narrative and exposure to Palestinian history as well as the debate on the narrative of whether or not these contested lands do go back to the families. Did they relinquish ownership or do they still have the contested deeds in their possession? I believe this project hopefully will have a multi-faceted impact in the later generations once this archive and many more archives will come about exposing the existence of these deeds.
Ron Stockton: It would be great to have an archive of archives.
Amine Zreik: It would. When I suggested this idea to Professor Khalidi, he was surprised he never thought of it himself.
Ron Stockton: I can see different families putting their material online and then having a major Palestinian clearinghouse where all these things would be accessible regardless of where they’re located physically.
Amine Zreik: Absolutely.
Ron Stockton: This is wonderful. I think this is going to make a major contribution and I’m glad you’re involved in it and that you brought me into it. I’m just glad to be a small part of this project. Thanks so much for this very interesting interview.
Amine Zreik: Thank you Professor Stockton. I appreciate your time and look forward to continuing this project with you. Thank you.