So I Head You Were Palestinian

Content Warnings: anti-Palestinian sentiments

By Lanie Najjab '18

One day after school, a boy I’d spoken perhaps three words to cornered me by my band locker. “So I heard you were Palestinian,” he said. I nodded, confused as to how he’d learned this when my own best friends usually couldn’t remember if my only non-white grandparent was from Palestine or Pakistan. He then proceeded to tell me that I was a liar. “No one is from Palestine,” he said. “It doesn’t exist, and it never existed. No one lived there before the creation of Israel.” I was taken aback by the suddenness of this verbal attack, but I didn’t let his aggression get to me. For every point he raised, I had a response. If Palestine never existed, why do I have family photos of it? How can the region have a distinct culture and dialect if it did not exist? How can you explain the 100-year-old Palestinian currency in my dad’s closet? He had no replies of his own. His argument was solely that I was lying. He walked off, face glowing red and eyes filled with hate. I never spoke to him again. A few years later, he popped up on my Facebook timeline for having shared a video about the importance of being a good ally to Muslims.

I wish I could say this type of event has been rare in my life, but it has not. When people find out I have Palestinian heritage, there are three common responses:

  1. Discomfort. They change the subject because they’ve vaguely heard of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but they don’t know enough to say anything about it.

  2. Beginning to slowly distance themselves from me.

  3. Hatred.

The first response is by far the most common, but it’s the second and third that stick in my mind. I will never forget the day in third grade when my Jewish friend from Girl Scouts told me she wasn’t allowed to be friends with me “because we’re supposed to hate each other.” Nor will I forget the time that I picked up the house phone to hear a man begin yelling politically-charged racial slurs about me and my family. He was not a man we knew. He looked us up in the phonebook to be his punching bag.

If “the talk” for African American children is learning how to interact with the police, then “the talk” for Palestinian children is learning how to interact with people who are pro-Israel. I had to learn facts and statistics about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict almost as soon as I was old enough to remember my own ethnicity. (Admittedly, this was delayed slightly by 9/11, when my parents encouraged me and my sister to avoid all questions on the topic.)

The first lesson I learned was that the United States is many things. It is our home. It is deeply Islamophobic. And it is also the largest and most powerful supporter of the Israeli military. There are many reasons people will give as to why the U.S. supports Israel so ardently, but the true reason is that the United States wants a strong ally in the Middle East. To be clear, we do have other allies there, such as Jordan (the Middle East is not a monolith). But there’s no military that you can rely on more to keep oil prices low by upsetting its neighbors than the one you’re giving all of your weapons to.

The second lesson is that Israel was created in 1948. This is important to know because people often think the conflict goes back hundreds of years. The oppression of the Jewish people in historical Israel goes back thousands of years, but the current state of Israel is not the same as the historic one. Nowadays, the Israelis are the oppressors. Their weapons are as advanced as the U.S.’s (see lesson one), and they are using them against people with sticks and rocks.

The third lesson is that it is not a religious conflict. Israel is a Jewish state, but it does not speak for all Jewish people, and the religion itself is absolutely not the issue. From the Palestinian perspective, it is about land—specifically, the land that the Palestinian people lived on before foreign colonial governments decided they should no longer be allowed to live there. When people try to contest this, it is helpful to add that most of my relatives who still live in the Middle East are atheists.

Following this, I learned the word “apartheid.” “Israel is an apartheid state,” my dad told me. “If people try to tell you it’s not, tell them Nelson Mandela said it was.” Coincidentally, this is also how I learned who Nelson Mandela was. I have since learned that many people will accuse you of lying before they believe that Nelson Mandela could possibly have been pro-Palestinian. For this reason, I keep this photo on my computer desktop.

From left to right: My great-uncle Suileyman Najjab, Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela

From left to right: My great-uncle Suileyman Najjab, Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela

All three men were friends. You can see it in their faces, and you can hear it in Mandela’s speech when he says, “our freedom is not complete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

The final and most important thing to know is that no one cares. I was warned that I should not expect people to care, so I should not let it bother me when they don’t. This lesson is one that takes many years to learn. Every time I think I know it, I am once again hurt when a friend hears what I have to say and then chooses to overlook all of it.

In spite of the many, many times I have been told that no one cares, and the times people have shown me they do not care in their actions, I still hope that someone, somewhere, might read this article and consider learning enough about the conflict to decide a position for themselves. If you think you might care, I encourage you to look for sources that may show a different side, such as Al-Jazeera, or perhaps to read U.S. articles on the conflict with a more critical eye. When you hear that protesters in Gaza were shot because they did something violent or aggressive (usually throwing stones), I want you to be conscious of the fact that the majority of Palestinians living in Gaza are under 18. In fact, 44% are 14 years old or younger. These children live in the most densely populated stretch of land on earth, and they do not have consistent access to electricity or clean water. This may not change your mind about whether or not their actions were right, but I hope it at least gives you pause.

The greatest irony of being Palestinian-American is being part of a heavily surveilled group that no one knows anything about. All eyes are on us. It’s become a joke to talk about the government watching you; but to me, that fear is real. I have nothing to hide, but I value my privacy. To me, it feels connected to my dignity. The fear that the government may someday turn on me is one I’ve had since childhood. It sprouted when I first got “the talk,” and it’s flourished with our current president’s pro-Israel stance. To some extent, this fear is what keeps us quiet. Earlier this year, I went to a WGST talk with race studies professor Saher Selod, who spoke about American Muslims. She said surveillance was the most commonly occuring theme in her interviews, and yet it was also the topic that people were most hesitant to go into detail about. This hit home for me. Telling people I am Palestinian has so very rarely sparked a positive reaction and so, so commonly elicited a negative one. Sometimes it feels easier to avoid the topic entirely. But existence is resistance. As long as I walk around with a Palestinian last name, questions will follow, and so will reactions. I hope someday those reactions might be positive—that I won’t need to teach my children that they’re not terrorists. But for now, I know our country just isn’t there yet. I just hope we can catch up soon.

From May 2018 Issue