In the wake of the video of the student government president making anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab comments, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be Palestinian; both on this campus and in the broader world. Sometimes, I find myself envying the certainty I had in my identity as a child. Even before I knew about words such as “apartheid” or could fathom ideas like “two state solution”, there was an emanant longing my father radiated when he would sit on the patio with a glass of marimeyah (a chillingly warm mint tea native to Palestine). My parents were refugees: They did not leave their country by choice. They never let us forget that.
In the wake of the Holocaust, the Jewish people were looking for a state. They found hope for a national homeland in this strip of land in the Middle East and began to organize a movement to establish this homeland there around the slogan, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” There was a small problem with this; Palestine most certainly was not a land without a people. My family, and other Palestinian families, had been living there for generations. Partially because their way of life revolved around farming and partially due to Jerusalem being a religious hub, they had extremely strong connections to the land. Apparently, a native population was just a small setback for a huge comeback because in 1948, 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes. Both them and their descendents are actively denied the right to return.
There’s a word people in the diaspora use to describe the displacement: ghourba. It roughly translates to a feeling of being foriegn no matter where you are. I didn’t understand this as much until I was older, and I interacted with non-Arabs. Being asked “where you’re from” is already a stressor for most first-generation immigrants but every time that question was directed at me, I felt like I lost a part of my subjectivity. As soon as I confessed to being Palestinian, I turned into either just another demographic threat or a projection of the conflict. I didn’t have the privilege of casually talking about my homeland. Reading a poem which affirmed my right to be Palestinian was enough to almost get me suspended my sophomore year of high school because a school board member took issue with me saying the P-word at a school event on school property. My mother began to teach me to cultivate silence; that it would be better to hold my story close to my chest where I wouldn’t be punished for it until I found places where it was safe to speak.
Michigan was supposed to be one of those places. I remember coming onto this campus and being excited to talk about Palestine as much as I wanted. The statement that Schlissel released during my first month condemning academic boycott of Israel wasn’t a great omen, but I remained hopeful. I needed to remain hopeful.
As a wide-eyed, freshman, student government intern, I decided a Central Student Government executive meeting between the interns and executive would be the perfect place to test this theory. After all, CSG was meant to represent ALL the students of University of Michigan, and with a sizeable Arab and Palestinian population, I assumed CSG spaces must be at-odds with the broader mentalities the University held. The icebreaker question was “what is your favorite food?” When the circle made its way around to me, I responded with, “I’m Palestinian so my favorite foods are words that mean nothing to y’all.”
The hush which fell over the room was ghastly saved for the quiet chuckling of my Muslim friend on exec that served to inform me I had fucked up. You would think I said my favorite food was a Trump re-election. Later, I was told that if I wanted to talk about Palestine, the student government was not the place for me. Because it was too divisive of an issue; my right to exist and occupy space was too divisive of an issue. Moreover, what did I have to gain? This administration (besides being at best passive and at worst pro-displacement) was great! We weren’t going to see better options than this, so couldn’t I just be okay with this minor character flaw?
I see this constantly. As Palestinians, we are demanded to accept a baseline amount of violence. We shoulder the burden of “creating peace” with a state which abuses our human rights, to such a degree that it is widely considered genocide by Palestinians and allies. We’ve been socialized out of mainstream U.S. society to protect the comfort of the Zionists, and our existence comes almost as an after-thought for most people. I think about this the most with the upcoming election, where I will be expected to show up and vote for a candidate who advocates for my ethnic cleansing (albeit, maybe in different packaging) because our lives are inconsequential compared to the larger concerns of society. It just begs the question of why Palestinian lives are the issue so many of us are willing to compromise on?
I want better for my people. I want us to have permission to narrate our stories. I want to be able to confidently write about the country I am from without consideration of any reaction from audiences other than boredom. I want to be able to walk into an interview and say, “I’m Palestinian” with my whole chest and not have to worry if something as simple as saying where I’m from will cost me a job. I want to be more than a mantra or a scapegoat. I want to be heard. I want to be able to have faith in something again. I don’t want to be swept under the rug. I want the certainty I had as a child. I want to feel safe.