Finding a Place for Arab Identity in Apartheid Week

An Arab stands in the foreground, looking ambivalent. Behind him, two groups of people argue.
(Elodie Arbogast • The Student Life)

A relative once told me that, after 9/11, they wanted to rip out every Arab part of themselves. The same relative tells me all kinds of stories about home — stories about the breeze in the apple orchards or the smell of home-cooked food.

Their memories are vivid and fond. Only something like 9/11 could shake them like it did. This relative wasn’t the only one.

Arab-Americans saw a rapid racialization post-9/11 that quickly made them the targets of hate and grief-fueled anger. A common response was to hide what they could; it was easier that way. Safer.

So 15 and a half years after the tragic event, it is no surprise that, for the most part, Arabs are invisible. In Hollywood, we’re either terrorists or nomadic salesmen. On the census, we’re white. The lack of common knowledge about where Arabs fit in explains the strange consciousness that I found when coming to college.

I’ve written before about how isolating it felt to not only be so starkly different from my peers, but to have no community to fall back on. The creation of the Middle Eastern Student Association, a dependable group that I can surround myself with, has made Pitzer’s lack of institutional support so much more obvious. I can no longer forgive what I chose not to see.

My aforementioned piece called for more institutional support to identity groups for their work supporting marginalized folks. But what about the groups that exist for the sole purpose of organizing around an issue? Are those groups not accountable to the communities they claim to organize for?

This week and the next, Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is hosting Israeli Apartheid Week, celebrating 100 years of the Palestinian resistance. First off, I want to make clear that not every Arab or Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) person is pro-Palestine.

And, as is apparent in SJP, not every Jewish person is pro-Israel. In fact there are many Arab Jews, and they have a range of opinions on the issue. The reality is, there are so many sides, and you can’t tell someone’s opinion based on any one aspect of their identity.

I am, however, pro-Palestine. I am against occupation, against colonialism, against oppression. I am an advocate for the framework that explains that, while Judaism doesn’t not mean Zionism, Zionism does mean racism and should be treated as such.

Yet, even for me, this week doesn’t seem like a celebration, but rather another series of emotionally taxing workshops and events. Education is exhausting.

Being reminded of the oppression of my Palestinian brothers and sisters (as if I ever forget) is exhausting. I can’t even walk to the dining hall this week without having to have a gut-wrenching conversation about occupation.

The events fall anywhere between a workshop on pinkwashing (a strategy employed by Israel that attempts to cover up the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by focusing on Israel’s seemingly open gay life) to a Shakedown Sounds about Borders and Walls. Not all of the events are purely educational, but my fear is that while their intention is to create healing around some of these issues, the absence of Arab folks in the space will make that goal far-fetched.

The Claremont Colleges are overwhelmingly white with a healthy Jewish population. SJP is no different. That makes the group especially good at targeting their efforts at the demographics that make up the 5Cs. But that also means that they are susceptible to leaving holes in supporting the students with first-hand knowledge of what occupation really looks like — the students who have personal connections with the conflict.

What I have seen happen time and time again is that spaces dedicated to fighting for Palestinian liberation are overwhelmingly white, making it hard for Arab students to participate, especially because they make themselves especially vulnerable while doing this work. This is a pattern true of many organizing spaces on the campuses and one that direly needs to be addressed.

Again, this isn’t to say that SJP isn’t doing good work, but rather that the culture on these campuses needs to shift to productive action that helps the students here while also helping folks abroad.

This is not to say that I am ungrateful. The movement that exists on the campuses is unique and resilient. The people organizing in these spaces are smart and strong and passionate. I am thankful for them because without them, my life would be exponentially harder, and that is a tough reality to imagine. It is beautiful to see students mobilize for a cause they grew up understanding so differently.

But until we can say that our Arab, MENA, and especially Palestinian students are accounted for and supported, we are not doing enough for Palestinian liberation. There is a long road to go, a difficult one. It is hard to fight for justice half-way across the world when it seems your own home is starting to crumble. But we will do it.

The events happening for the next week are valuable, and regardless of where you stand on the issue, I encourage you to attend.

Simone Bishara is a third-year at Pitzer College studying Sociology. She hopes to one day pursue a career in juvenile justice.

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