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Shifting Tides: The Position of the Palestinian Diaspora in the Quest for Justice

posted on: May 8, 2024

By: Barbara Nimri Aziz / Arab America Contributing Writer

The Palestinian diaspora, particularly those living in the US, should not be overlooked as a player in calls for the freedom of Palestine. A new generation of professional Americans of Palestinian origin have worked tirelessly for a half century to document and update a largely unresponsive US public on conditions in their occupied homelands. Their efforts had seemed fruitless; the risks they took were high; the difference they made hardly registered. Today, coalitions they built, the quiet admiration they earned, the skills they acquired, the resources they provided, must be recognized as preparing the ground on which expanding support rests. Albeit it has come with immense suffering and martyrdom by Gazan residents in past months.

Despite a US veto of Palestinian membership in the UN; despite dismissals of elite college presidents; despite major media’s unmitigated coverup of Israeli war crimes; despite accelerated funding for the Israeli war machine; despite a US congressional resolution banning the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”; despite small crowds in early demonstrations against Israel’s genocide on Gaza; despite individuals risking careers and friendships to defend free speech as a hallmark of American democracy; despite the obfuscation of truths about Israeli apartheid policies by independent journalists; despite the weaponization of the charge of antisemitism – public protests continue. 

Last week, US-based protests which had lagged behind those elsewhere in the world took a new turn. Student encampments at Columbia University were assaulted by New York City police, with over 108 arrests and suspensions. By the beginning of May similar protests had erupted at more than 75 colleges across the nation. They continue, despite more arrests, a hostile media and threats from university administrations. International universities are joining in.

We’ve seen nothing like this since students opposed the Vietnam war. Conditions today are very different. In the 1960s the US military draft was in effect and cellphone cameras were non-existent. There were no live feeds of war carnage overseas. And apartheid was a concept limited to South Africa’s white regime. Doubtless commentators will be discussing analogies and contrasts between current uprisings against the Gaza genocide (notwithstanding increased daily killings and ethnic cleansing underway in the Occupied West Bank) and protests related to Vietnam and South Africa.

The groundswell of public outrage expressed in current campus revolts seems to indicate a real turning point. Some reasons for the shift are obvious; others less so. First, is the availability of painful, even horrifying, images and stories arriving direct from Gaza residents via Twitter, TikTok and other social media. These expose truths masked by the lies and biases in major media. Unimaginable barbarity to the degree underway in Gaza since October has never been witnessed so widely. Targeting of medical staff, journalists and aid workers alongside the staggering death toll of children is, literally, shocking. The massive scale of murder, home destruction and wounding of Gaza civilians and the withholding of food and water is irrefutable. A single story focusing on one child can trigger moral outrage unlike anything else. On the political front, Ireland, South Africa, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Colombia, Brazil, Jamaica – most of them nations viewed as minor global players – have led the way, by one means or another, to support Palestinian rights and challenge Israeli and US policies. One cannot discount the role of some brave Jewish Americans working in solidarity with Palestinians and other agencies to end the siege. 

Since early in the war on Gaza, traditional ‘influencers’ on matters of human rights have been largely silent. Celebrities for example. Notwithstanding the courage of two – actors Susan Sarandon and Cynthia Nixon – others known for championing the weak and downtrodden, like Shawn Penn and George Clooney, are absent. There’s no Jane Fonda, no Mohammad Ali , no Bono in this anti-war movement. Although one must single out the steadfastness of Vanessa Redgrave now in her 80s, defamed for support of Palestine rights as early as the 1970s, and the irrepressible Bassem Youssef who is lashing out wryly over media biases. This in contrast to a mute Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer and a woman with Palestinian roots.

Working behind the scenes however is the effective and hardly celebrated Palestinian diaspora. Their numbers are to be found throughout the world, from Latin American to Europe and the Middle East. Many live in the USA, the children of refugees settled here following the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. We may have heard the names of Jerusalem-born intellectuals Professor Edward Said and poet Mahmoud Darwish. Although Said is hailed in comparative literature circles for his groundbreaking Orientalismhis 1979 book, The Question of Palestine, made Palestine a subject of serious debate. Equally importantly Said, who died in 2003, doubtless had a major impact on the emerging generation of educated Palestinians in the US. Now in their 40s, 50s and 60s, these Palestinians occupy a range of professions across the country. Said’s generation confined themselves to engineering, political science and history; today those men and women are outpaced by a large, industrious and creative community of poets, filmmakers, novelists, comedians, journalists, musicians, lawyers, teachers, and community organizers. Most may not be household names – not yet. But Ali Abunima, Palestine Chronicle’s Ramsey Baroud, activist Linda Sarsour, Cherien Dabis, Mai Masri, Lisa Suheir Majaj, Amer Zahr, Dean Obeidallah, Samia Halaby, Steven Salaita, Fady Joudah, Naomi Shihab Nye, Susan Abdulhawa, and Rabab Abdulhadi are a few of the best known and most influential. Their research, films, writing, speaking and organizing have kept information flowing about conditions in their homelands: daily killings, dispossession, prisoners in Israeli jails, home demolitions, settler expansion, non-violent resistance, uprooted trees, confiscated homes and lands, the crushing embargo on Gaza. Their novels and poems may have as much impact as facts-on-the-ground by historians. Risk is part of their identity. Undeterred by the marginalization of their efforts, by threats and firings, their work had steadily seeped into a determinedly unresponsive American culture. One example of their resolve is the BDS movement. Founded in 2005, it has waged an uphill effort to call for the divestment of US financial support for Israel. Unknown to the wider public, BDS is perceived as such a threat to Israel-American interests that 37 of 50 states have been pressured to adopt anti-BDS legislation making institutions (including colleges) and individuals who support BDS ineligible for government funding! (Sometimes employees who refuse to sign an anti-BDS declaration lose their job.) 

While talented articulate Palestinians and their institutions grew, Palestine’s traditional support base – local leaders and Arab League states – weakened. Elected Palestinian leaders and officials in the Occupied Territories were neutralized and corrupted. Arab states which had offered refuge and succor along with diplomatic support for Palestinian statehood were also neutralized – some by war and civil strife, others by US brokered treaties with Israel, a process best summarized in former President Carter’s 2006 brave exposePalestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

Dr. Barbara Nimri Aziz is an American anthropologist, journalist, and writer. She is known for her research and scholarship in the areas of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies. Aziz played a leading role in the Arab-American literary sphere and was involved in establishing the literary collective RAWI. More about Aziz at this link:

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