Palestinian activism in the US
Role of Palestinians in Diaspora: Palestinian activism in the US
Orignally written in English translated to Arabic and published in Haq AlAwda Feb 2009 at http://www.badil.org/Arabic-Web/haq-alawda/articles07.htm
By Mazin Qumsiyeh*
Palestinians in diaspora contribute to Palestine directly and through their success in their adopted/host communities. In fact, the founding of the PLO and most of its factions was by Palestinian activists in the diaspora. Many books were written on political activities and armed resistance. The successes of the resistance (civil and military) included wresting International recognition and support for our national rights, preserving heritage and culture, providing social and other services, and much more. While the majority of the resistance naturally and organically occurred in Palestine, millions of Palestinians live in exile and they play a very significant role. In this brief we will focus on activism among Falastinyeen AlShatat (Palestinians in exile) with emphasis on North America.
The wave of immigrants (many refugees) who came to North America after 1948 immediately started to speak out and do everything they could to support people “back home”. Their numbers were few and there was almost total hegemony of Zionists in countries like the US and Canada. As more people migrated and then the shocking events of 1967 unfolded, activism in Western Countries picked up steam. In late 1967 Palestinians helped found the first nonsectarian pan-Arab organization in America: the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG). Other organizations followed including the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA, founded 1972), the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC founded 1980), the Arab American Institute (AAI, founded 1985), and Council of American Islamic Relations (1994). Some groups focused on social work and maintaining support for their ancestral towns and villages (societies of expatriates from Ramallah, Bethlehem, AlBireh, Taybeh, Deir Dibwan etc). These organizations and many more focused on social work, maintaining cultural heritage, media work, lobbying, education, and more recently on boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS).
BDS started inside Palestine with the start of the Zionist project and continued throughout our history. BDS activism intensified and spilled internationally in the past 10 years as Israel consolidated its apartheid system. BDS has spread among many International churches, trade unions, universities, and other civic organizations.
Activists have organized thousands of demonstrations and vigils in reaction to events on the ground (e.g. the recent Gaza onslaught) or to defend rights like the right to return. Thousands of Palestinians in diaspora regularly write opinion pieces, interview with the media, create stories, create documentaries, use blogs and other internet social outreach. Some Palestinian-led groups that work on media issues include Electronic Intifada and Institute for Middle East Understanding. Other activists find expression in the arts: examples include cartoonists Naji Al-Ali and Carlos Latuff, to poet Suheir Hammad, visual artists Emily Jacir and Mai Masri, among others. Palestinians also excelled in business and some have achieved considerable wealth. Many philanthropists were critical in funding projects like hospitals and universities in Palestine. Other professionals who did well in their fields were also able to help back home. There are villages and towns in Palestine where over half the donations coming from diaspora Palestinians. Palestinian academics are among the most renowned in their fields. Examples include Edward Said, Hisham Sharabi, Naseer Aruri, and Rashid Khalidi, Nur Masalha, Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Saad Chedid, among thousands of others.
Palestinians in diaspora have participated fully in their societies from running for school boards to running for high offices. They have also been great community organizing in many fields ranging from environmental issues to labor rights to human rights to foreign affairs. And we have become better at utilizing the Internet Revolution; thousands participate in chat rooms, created pages on Facebook and Myspace and joined listserves that now network millions of Palestinians with tens of millions of non-Palestinians. A US-based Palestinian programmer also initiated the largest and most comprehensive online portal of information and communication for our community: http://www.PalestineRemembered.com
Many activists faced persecution for their activism and have provided test cases for the extent of democracy in those countries they resided in (e.g. the cases of Mazen AlNajjar and Sami Al-Arian). Hundreds of others suffered at some level or another (receiving insults, defamed, losing jobs, losing grants etc). Other limitations of activism in diaspora include the sometimes fragmentation along clan, village, sectarian, religious, and political orientation. The newer generation is less encumbered by these issues. Other challenges include avoiding defeatism, excessive criticism of others, need for more humility and more team work. This only takes more work. As the late Professor Edward Said stated: " Isn't it time we caught up with our own status and made certain that our representatives here and elsewhere realize, as a first step, that they are fighting for a just and noble cause, and that they have nothing to apologize for or anything to be embarrassed about? On the contrary, they should be proud of what their people have done and proud also to represent them." (Edward Said http://www.counterpunch.org/said09252003.html )
Indeed we should be proud. The above listed examples of activism are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A lot of activism goes unreported and unrecognized. Many of the non-Palestinian supporters of Palestine give credit to their meetings with Palestinians who “opened our eyes”.
While Ben Gurion claimed “the old will die and the young will forget”, what we see is the strengthening of the youth connectedness with time. In the 1960s and 1970s the General Union of Palestinian Students was the main engine of the youth movement. Many chapters are still active but new forms of activism also emerged including hundreds of Palestinian Solidarity groups at universities around the world (see also the emergent Palestinian Youth Network http://www.pal-youth.org/ ).
Dr. Salman Abu Sitta captured that sense of optimism in saying that Al-Nakba can be praised “because, from the ashes, the Palestinians have risen like the proverbial phoenix. They realised that with no home, no military power and no powerful friends they would have to depend on that greatest of gifts, the human spirit. Immediately following Al-Nakba I saw boys walking up and down the only asphalt road near their refugee camp studying their books. With no rooms to go back to, no light and no space in which to study they would sit at night under a lamp post on the same road, its dark macadam acting as a blackboard, using a soft stone as chalk, solving algebra problems for next day's classes.”
The challenges before us cannot be underestimated but we have met hard challenges in the past and know we have what it takes to be innovative and resilient (e.g. see struggles of 1897, 1919, 1936, 1947-9, 1956, 1967, 1970s, 1987-91, 2001-today). Each of these periods reshuffled the political deck, created new challenges, but also saw the emergence of Palestinians (both in Palestine and in Diaspora) who took it as a signal to begin or intensify their activism and in many cases create new forms of activism. The spark of sumud (steadfastness), energy, and determination is seen in the eyes of Palestinians of all ages. I see it in the 50 elderly people who joined the vigil for Gaza in Beit Sahour, in students I teach at Bethlehem and Bir Zeit Universities, in Palestinian students in high schools and universities in the US that we spoke to during our Wheals of Justice bus tour (justicewheels.org), in the youth at refugee camps who joined activities from Dabka to acting, in the Palestinians (young and not so young) leading and expanding BDS movements around the world, and in millions of others doing myriads of actions that are making a difference. With support of people of good conscience from around the world (e.g. the International Solidarity Movement, The Free Gaza Movement), we Palestinians will continue writing our history. And when the chapter of actual return and self determination is written, we will write one more sentence: We are proud and we are grateful.
Salman Abu Sitta, In praise of Al-Nakba, Al-Aheram Weekly 22-28 Sept 2005, Issue #61
Nadia Hijab, The Role of Palestinian Diaspora Institutions in Mobilizing the International Community, UN Publications, 2004
Helena Lindholm Schulz and Juliane Hammer, The Palestinian Diaspora: Formation of Identities and Politics of Homeland, Routledge, 2003.
Helena Shiblak (2005). The Palestinian Diaspora: Formation of Identities and Politics of Homeland. Journal of Refugee Studies, 18: 507–509.
*Dr. Qumsiyeh served on the faculty of Yale and Duke Universities before returning to Palestine where he teaches now at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities.