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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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Michigan in Color: Where is my birthright?

Courtesy of Suha Najjar

BY SUHA NAJJAR

Published March 12, 2014

In 1948, Jiddo was exiled from his home in Huj, presently known as Sderot. My father tells me stories of how his father would take him and his siblings back to where their home once stood. He would show them where he planted his olive trees and where his father used to catch him skipping class. My grandfather promised his children that one day he was going to bring them back to their home and that their current living conditions weren’t permanent. He firmly believed this: his family would not remain refugees for the rest of their lives. It was their inalienable right to return to their own home, and they would. Days turned to years, and my grandfather died in a car accident. With Israel’s changing policies, occupations and borders, my family is no longer allowed to even visit Huj. As it stands today, my grandfather’s house, trees, soil and memories are a part of Ariel Sharon’s cattle farm.

Like my father, I was born a refugee in the Jabalia camp of the Gaza Strip. When I was 10 months old my family moved to the United States. Since then, we have made frequent trips to Gaza. I remember once reaching the Tel Aviv Airport, thinking I was so close to my home in Gaza only to be sent back to Frankfurt the next morning after being detained for several hours by Israeli authorities. I was 11 years old.

This was not the first or last time we were denied entry into our homeland. I remember asking my mother why we never visited Jerusalem. I always wanted to pray in the famous and sacred Masjid Al-Aqsa; I wanted to see up close the Dome of the Rock I was so used to seeing on TV and on postcards despite it being hours away from our home in Gaza. My mother explained this concisely by simply stating: “Because we are Palestinian.”

I would ask her why it takes us a week to get to our home in Gaza from the United States, or why we didn’t have an airport like everyone else. And again she would say, “Because we are Palestinian.” I didn’t understand how after traveling halfway across the globe and being at the border a few miles away from my family — from Shaima, Abood, and Nesma — we could be denied entry. Denied entry to my birthplace, to my homeland. Did these facts mean nothing? Do home and ancestry and family weigh nothing? As I grew older, I stopped questioning because I began to understand what my mother had so honestly explained to me. I am Palestinian. I have a Gazan hawiya that only permits me to enter the Gaza Strip. Israel proper and the West Bank are off limits.

My roots are off limits.

I am Palestinian; I am from Huj, yet I am not allowed to visit Palestine. I am not allowed to leave the 136 square mile open-air prison densely populated by 1.7 million people. On the other hand, my Jewish peers in my American high school would come back every summer boasting about their birthright trips. Most of them were born here, and their parents and grandparents were also born in the United States. Many times they were of European descent. However, none of them were actually born in Israel. Until this day I don’t understand how it is their right to visit a country which they have never been to or have never known to be home, but I, who — like so many generations before me — was born in Palestine, am not even allowed to visit my own home. How is it that other kids are getting free trips to travel across the world, yet when I was in the Jabalia refugee camp, I was not allowed to drive a few miles to visit the place where my father’s history yearns to be affirmed? Another “holy” site of sorts, off limits. Where was my birthright?

As a Palestinian woman I have been exiled, humiliated, and denied the right to see my family. I have been dehumanized in a place where I should feel at home. With this, I feel the right and need to criticize Israeli occupation that has caused decades of hell for me and my community. To call out and hold it accountable for its blatantly racist and inhumane policies. I have been called anti-Semitic for simply stating that Israel is a colonial occupying regime, or for saying that Occupation Cast Lead was not a war but a massacre, or for saying I have and will forever have the right to return to Huj. Every time I share my stories and my truths, they are tuned out, negated and questioned because I am Palestinian and I have a “bias.” Why is invented objectivity only imposed on me? I remember internalizing the idea that my lived experiences were not enough, were not authentic, were not the truth. In my own organizing, I would look for a pro-Palestinian white Jewish speaker for our events because I started to believe that his opinion was more legitimate than mine, and that others would actually listen to what he had to say. Unfortunately, this indeed was often the case.

What has been most difficult for me as a student at Michigan is the overwhelming hypocrisy of my Zionist peers. They reject me and my opinions without any type of real engagement. Hear me loud and clear: it is my right to criticize Israel AND it is also my absolute right to criticize Zionists who support and advocate occupation and imperialism. I have attended a number of social justice events hosted by different organizations, and I always see Zionist students showing their support. This facade of justice means little to me. How do you stand against racism on one hand, and so vehemently support and protect an ideology that seeks to physically uproot and deny my people’s history and existence? How am I supposed to stand with someone in any fight for liberation when they dismiss my own narrative?

So no, I don’t want to talk about how I make hummus and falafel nor how life-changing your free trip to my homeland was, where you roamed freely through borders and cities and stomped heavily on earth I have only dreamed of seeing, smelling and feeling up close. I don’t want to dialogue about finding “common ground” and “planting the seeds of peace” when my own ground has been pillaged and stolen time and time again. If you can’t recognize my history, and the current occupation that hinders my existence on a daily basis, I can’t be friends. I want recognition that the more than 5,000,000 Palestinian refugees fragmented, traumatized, scattered, exiled, and displaced across the globe have been wronged, that their stories will be heard, these injustices will be righted, and that they and I will be able to return.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail michiganincolor@umich.edu.


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