The Changing Arab American Activism for Palestine in the United States

Advocacy for Palestine in the United States has entered a new phase, given the higher level of veracity social media injected into coverage of the latest Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza. Social media, a ready tool in the hands of a younger, motivated, savvy, and diverse constituency, made a palpable difference this time in the way an increasing number of Americans viewed the events—that is, closer to the Palestinian perspective. The mainstream media could not easily wait for the news filtering on reporting influenced by powerful Israeli interests. But can social media attention to Palestinian lives be sustained long enough to have an effect on US foreign policy? Is the tidal wave of images of collapsing buildings and videos of the victims’ last hours on Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp a part of a newfound strategy by the advocates of Palestinian rights? In other words, has advocacy for Palestine reached the point of raising the cost of Israeli military occupation in the eyes of the US populace and polity? Is this really a new dawn for Arab American political activism?

The story of Arab and Arab American organized advocacy for Palestine is not new. Sophisticated organizations existed in 1936 and 1944. These were the Arab National League and the Institute for Arab American Affairs, respectively, and their roots can be traced to the dawn of immigration to the United States from the Levant. It might be surprising for many to know that the Institute was the only organization formed proactively by a sophisticated cadre of immigrants who, having cultivated a new sense of belonging following the United States’ triumph over Nazism in the Second World War, wanted at once to represent US interests in the Arab Middle East and the Arab immigrants’ hopes and concerns in the United States. Among them were the likes of Habib Ibrahim Katibah, Fuad Isa Shatara, and Ameen Farah, all accomplished authors of Arab origin.

Political advocacy by Arab immigrants and their Arab American counterparts over the past century of immigration has been disconnected and their political organizations were generally short-lived. Severe immigration restrictions by the US government between 1924 and 1965 all but eliminated building on past experiences. A sense of urgency caused by calamities in the homelands remains a principal catalyst for action by the generations. The history of Arab American advocacy is complex and analyzing where advocacy stands today requires an unhurried examination of the transnational links over several decades, not to mention geopolitical changes across Middle East region and its environs.

Urgency propels political action in the Arab American experience, despite the fact that activists now in their 20s and 30s operate in a vastly different reality than their predecessors just one generation removed. Most young activists did not witness the first Gulf War in 1990-1991, the dejection the failed Oslo Accords brought, and the tragedy of September 11. However, these events constitute a one-two punch in shaping the young people’s political realities and options and linger in their consciousness. Living the consequences of these events—not least of which the eventual destruction of two major Arab countries, Iraq and Syria—is compounded by a degraded Palestinian Authority and a fading Palestine Liberation Organization.

Certainly, the glue that appears to bind together diverse activists of vastly different outlooks is not only the issue of Palestine, but a multitude of progressive causes where Palestinians felt welcomed, such as Black Lives Matter, nontraditional Me Too advocacy, and LBGTQ issues, in an atmosphere where expressions of Arab and Muslim identities are an integral part of this diversity. Social media emerged as an organizational tool that enfolded young Palestinian Americans with an impulse for social justice. The Israeli attacks on Gaza represented the spark that ignited the activism of youth who make effective use of their cell phones and who belong to an emergent socially minded ecosystem.

But there may be limits to social media, in spite of its open frontiers. The passing of a number of Arab Americans who were mentors to so many compounded the aforementioned one-two punch, and in addition to the horizontal structure of social media platforms, left a vacuum of leadership among young activists. While the advantages the internet offers to political activism are significant and well documented, it has some important shortcomings. The internet is not necessarily a reliable educational tool, as social media information does not always emanate from factual content. Such a vacuum, in turn, might be contributing to some uncritical attitudes, unwarranted accolades, redundant organizations, and cults of personality. As a result, a unified strategy is not always the priority of the array of social media posts. At the same time, the days of the lively and heated conversations in the late 1980s and the 1990s at the once thriving conventions of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee with Edward Said, Clovis Maksoud, Jack Shaheen, and Michael Suleiman, and when allies such as Noam Chomsky, Iqbal Ahmad, Alfred Lilienthal, and Israel Shahak reinforced clarity of arguments in defense of the Palestinian position, may be re-created on some social media forums, as the internet affords new and different spheres for these conversations.

Ready access to large audiences through WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook may seem to enforce a dispersed vision and strategy regarding the future of Palestine. Yet, sheer enthusiasm and a clearly focused commitment to social justice as a basic idea among the youth exposed an age-old inability (or, perhaps, an unwillingness) by major traditional Arab American organizations to articulate a set of expectations of politicians and government agencies. In their own way, young people were able to force the major networks and cable news to recognize how repulsive it is to bury women and children under piles of rubble by bringing down massive residential buildings.

Charting a more promising future for Arab American advocacy for Palestine is not possible without confronting the complexities of past events and excavating Palestine as integral to an Arab ethos, one that accompanied the immigrants across the oceans. More comprehensive accounting of how calamity propelled political action in geopolitical and diasporic frameworks must also be undertaken. Therefore, social media activism alone may not be enough if the goal is to effect a new foreign policy. Thousands of young Arab Americans raised their voices in defense of Palestine and, in so doing, raised the stakes for Israel in US public opinion. The large and capable Israel lobby and massive media machine is not idle and has been responding. The challenge now is to turn the Arab American social media storm into a sustained campaign with tangible political results.

Hani J. Bawardi is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Dearborn. The views expressed in this Viewpoint are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC or its Board of Directors.

* Photo Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes