Reflections on Organizing for Palestine in the US

The Nakba 73 rally in DC on May 15th marked a monumental and emotional experience for the Palestinian movement in the US. Thousands of us from across the DMV came together to protest Israel’s most recent violence against Palestinians. Compared to nearly two decades ago, when I remember being part of a group of just six people standing outside the State Department protesting the occupation, seeing and hearing the waves upon waves of supporters in the streets this month has been exhilarating. One speaker with the Palestinian Youth Movement even noted how far we’ve come from those days.

Twenty years ago, as a student at George Washington University, I was more involved in Palestinian activism. We were novices to organizing, and while our experience does not remotely compare to what Palestinians in the occupied territories have endured — and are enduring — we faced the kind of opposition that is both different from and similar to what we face today when advocating for Palestinian liberation.

Intimidation, Threats and Blacklists

The climate of the early 2000s was harsh. The Second Intifada started in 2000. US propaganda was focused on using 9/11 to justify invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Organizations that supported US and Israeli aggression alike had free rein to spread falsehoods that targeted anyone expressing dissent.

National institutions like David Horowitz’s Freedom Center took out ads in the paper accusing Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on our campus of aiding Hamas and accusing the Muslim Students Association (MSA) of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Right-wing student organizations like Students for Defense of Democracies (SDD) held events that spread bigoted propaganda about Palestinians and Muslims. Pro-Israel groups even tried to shock us with images of American activist Rachel Corrie’s death while telling us why she deserved to be killed by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) who had crushed her using an armored vehicle.

Blacklists were meant to silence us, and graduating seniors involved in MSA and SJP chapters across the country were threatened (directly or indirectly) with losing job prospects or their immigration status if they actively supported Palestine. Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian activist and professor at the University of South Florida, was indicted in 2003 and held up as a cautionary example of what would happen to students — especially Palestinian, Arab and other international students — who spoke up.

These tactics worked. The Palestinian students who were able to stay on campus were unfazed, but it silenced many others and made students reticent to work with us for fear of consequences — especially in the climate of heightened suspicion of Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and immigrants that characterized the early 2000s. To be honest, I feel like I also gave up out of despair — while I still worked with our SJP chapter, I focused more on other subjects that I cared about (Kashmir, Uighurs in East Turkestan and US Muslims under surveillance) that didn’t carry the same risk of backlash.

Everyday Propaganda and Faithwashing

When I reflect on the more daily occurrences, I can’t help but feel angry. We drafted nuanced statements and carefully worded op-eds on Palestinian rights and the struggle for liberation, and would still be criticized as lacking understanding of the complexity of the situation and accused of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, I knew one professor who openly joked about “turning the Middle East to glass.” Teaching assistants in our international affairs courses sidestepped discussions on Palestine by repeating the lie that this was some eternal and overly complex conflict. And several students on campus who wore IDF T-shirts would confidently tell us that this was all a simple matter of good versus evil.

Some events were simply absurd. We had the chance to hear some students try out nonsensical talking points like “Would Hamas treat an Israeli at one of their hospitals?” or “A rock thrown by a teenager can kill an IDF soldier if thrown just right.” Birthright Israel set up booths on campus and our Palestinian friends would ask them if they could get a trip to their own homeland, pointing out all the places on the map where their families used to live.

Other events were more hostile. When a pro-Israel group invited two IDF soldiers to campus for an event advertised to all students, they quickly closed it off when one Palestinian student entered and kicked him and a few others (i.e., anyone who “looked too Arab”) out. At most of our open events featuring Palestinian speakers, someone would repeat the lie about “Palestinians celebrating 9/11” — and no matter how many times it is debunked, it still persists today.

This was also my first encounter with right-wing Hindutva fascist support of Israel, over a decade before the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi became prime minister of India. We hosted an event with an activist and journalist who had been working in the West Bank in the early 2000s. She was a brilliant speaker who gave us a detailed account of daily life in the occupied West Bank, protest movements and ways Palestinians have been asking for solidarity. The first series of questions came from someone in the audience who opened with racist comments about Palestinians and Muslims being “invaders” and “deserving their fate,” and continued with extremist language about us needing to be eliminated in an outburst which continued until the speaker and I were able to shut him down. Only later did I find out that his talking points were taken from Hindutva fascist rhetoric.

But the most personal incident was when we were used as propaganda ourselves. I was part of a “Muslim-Jewish Dialogue” made up of 12 students — six Muslim and six Jewish — who met regularly as a way to build interfaith understanding. To be clear, I enjoyed being a part of this: I learned a lot, and I still keep in touch with a few people from the group. But critically, none of us were Palestinian — our backgrounds were Egyptian, Iraqi, Iranian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi — and the subject of Israel, Palestine and the occupation was rarely discussed.

A few months in, two incidents burned our trust in this approach. First, a few of us attended a talk with one Palestinian activist who discussed the tactic of endless dialogue — that is, he had observed pro-Israel organizations using repeated dialogue with Palestinian organizers as a way to leave them with less time for any other organizing. Second, shortly after that talk, we found out that our dialogue group was being touted by one of the campus' pro-Israel organizations as part of their outreach to Muslim students. The six of us were initially divided three-and-three on whether to quit (I was in favor of remaining), but after being used as propaganda and listed on the same page as Student Alliance for Israel, the rest of us decided to dissolve the group.

This tactic is an example of faithwashing. It’s based on depicting the occupation of Palestine as a religious conflict that can be overcome with more interfaith understanding, inviting Muslims (as long as they are not Palestinian) into Israeli organizations or to Israel itself to demonstrate tolerance. Crucially, faithwashing never mentions the settler colonialism and expulsion of Palestinians that was the foundation of the modern state of Israel or the ethnonationalism used to justify the continued occupation.

What is Different Now?

Something is different today. Members of Congress, in an unprecedented development, are calling out Israel’s apartheid system. Some news networks are seeking out Palestinian voices to talk about their own oppression, like Mohammed el-Kurd. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is gaining momentum where previous boycott attempts did not. Advocating for Palestinian rights and against the occupation is more normalized, as is the use of terms like “settler colonialism” and “apartheid” to describe the Israeli occupation.

Twenty years ago, most Black organizers I met had an acute understanding of Palestine, and most Palestinian organizers I knew were very aware of anti-Black racism in the US. To paraphrase their words, the oppression Palestinians have faced has close parallels to how Black people in the US have been treated for generations. I would hope that after the last year of Black Lives Matter and the wider racial justice movement, more people are at least aware of this connection and mutual struggle for liberation.

But we still see a lot of the same tactics used 20 years ago wheeled out today. Major news networks still default to asking Israeli defense ministers and security experts to speak on Palestinians’ behalf, and run headlines where hundreds of Palestinians die in the passive voice. The IDF still counts every person they kill as a Hamas combatant and every building they bomb as a Hamas base while treating every one of their soldiers as a civilian, and no matter how much this is mocked on Twitter, major news networks still take this propaganda uncritically and frame it as a “both sides” issue, never as a part of Israel’s 73-year-long occupation of Palestine. The blacklists are still in effect, and even the Associated Press will cave to right-wing pressure to fire someone sympathetic to Palestine days after the IDF bombs their own offices.

Faithwashing is in greater use. Organizations like the Muslim Leadership Initiative, a program under the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, partner with and invite prominent Muslims (but not Palestinians) into dialogue and on trips to see Israel and occupied Palestine through a Zionist lens. The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council was initiated several years ago by members in the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Since then, the AJC has continued to platform anti-Muslim bigots, share Islamophobic propaganda and justify the occupation, while ISNA has drawn back from supporting Palestinian rights. These programs are a farce, since they rest on the implication that the conflict is not about Jews versus Muslims and yet peace can be achieved by building understanding between Jews and Muslims, as long as everyone accepts the occupation. Just like our dialogue group 20 years ago, the effect is to paper over the occupation with feel-good interfaith events. But what good is interfaith understanding without solidarity? What use is it when we repeatedly condemn anti-Semitism but our counterparts are never asked to condemn ethnic cleansing and apartheid?

That last point is especially relevant. In the first few years after 9/11, most of us in Muslim organizations were expected to repeatedly condemn terrorism. But no matter how often we did, no matter how disconnected we were from any event, people demanded condemnations. Nothing in this respect has changed. The purpose of demanding condemnation of something you have no part in is to imply that you are somehow connected, and responding with a condemnation does more to reinforce than to refute that. This is why Palestinian organizers have been warning us of the exact tactic you see playing out right now: the expectation that those of us who support Palestinian liberation must condemn anti-Semitism is meant to imply that equal rights and freedom for Palestinians is itself anti-Semitic. Issuing condemnations does little to address anti-Semitism, but it does plenty to reinforce the idea that the existence of Palestine and Palestinians is anti-Semitic.

Already the news cycle has moved on from the ongoing occupation, apartheid and ethnic cleansing — even as the IDF and settlers continue to expel Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and other neighborhoods in Jerusalem, attack worshipers at Al-Aqsa and cut off electricity to Gaza, in just the first week after the supposed ceasefire.

But I want to remain optimistic. This May, more than ever before I felt like we could see a free Palestine in our lifetimes. The oppressor uses the same tactics, but their success is fading. Continue to uplift and act in solidarity with Palestinian comrades. Normalize supporting a free Palestine in your own circles and organizations. And remember, Palestinians, Black people in the US, Indigenous peoples displaced by other settler states and current and past colonized people are all in a shared struggle for liberation.

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