'We Are All The Same': What Pro-Palestine Activism Looks Like In The Mountain West
At a recent rally in support of Palestine that drew hundreds of people to the Colorado state Capitol, Palestinian American women energized the crowd. They led call-and-response chants until their voices were hoarse and spoke of the realities their family members face living under Israeli occupation.
Co-organizer Nadeen Ibrahim has been a fixture at such demonstrations, opening up about her family’s experiences living in Palestine and drawing parallels among the struggles of oppressed people across the globe. On this day, she invoked her Palestinian grandmother who, from her window, has a view of “the apartheid wall,” a separation barrier that Israeli officials built in 2002 to annex Palestinian land under the guise of security.
“My grandma and her entire community were divided when that border wall was created,” Ibrahim told the crowd. “It literally came down her street.” Ibrahim said it now takes her grandmother three hours to reach al-Aqsa mosque, once a five-minute trip. It is one of the holiest sites for Muslims and Jews, where Israeli forces fired rubber-coated bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at worshippers during Ramadan, helping to fuel the latest round of violence in Palestine and Israel.
The movement for Palestinian liberation has gained new momentum following the recent violence that disproportionately affected Palestinians. And in the Mountain West and beyond, women are on the front lines of this movement. Iman Jodeh, Colorado’s first Palestinian American and Muslim lawmaker, says women have long led the charge.
In 1948, during what Palestinians call “al-Nakba,” which translates to “The Catastrophe,” that displaced 700,000 Palestinians, “women would embroider secret messages in their dresses and pass by the men who needed to read those messages,” Jodeh said.
Jodeh’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Palestine nearly 50 years ago.
“They came here just like many Americans now in search of the American Dream and to give their children the life that was never afforded to them because of occupation,” she told the Mountain West News Bureau.
She still has family in the occupied West Bank, where the Israeli government limits Palestinian movement, and described the systematic discrimination she has seen and experienced on her many trips there.
“There's the separation or apartheid wall, there's checkpoints, there's the restriction of movement for Palestinians," she said. "There is the forced removal of Palestinians from our homes.”
During one trip to the West Bank, she remembered rushing home with her father to make 6 o'clock curfew and witnessing a confrontation between Israeli soldiers and a woman who was walking with her elderly grandmother. She tried to help the woman but the last thing she remembers was seeing her "getting zip-tied and put into the back of an Israeli jeep and her grandmother getting sent on another jeep." The grandmother was yelling that her injured granddaughter needed to go to the hospital as the jeeps sped away.
Jodeh sees a clear line between such oppression of Palestinians and systems of oppression on U.S. soil: “The parallels are that of the civil rights era here in the United States and the systemic racism that brown, Black and Indigenous communities continue to navigate."
'A reckoning' on Palestine
At the rally, Jodeh urged the crowd to consider the billions in military aid the U.S. sends to Israel. “There is a reckoning happening regarding Palestine. To our congressional delegation in D.C. — what side of history do you want to be on?” she said into the microphone.
According to the Congressional Research Service, Israel has been "the largest cumulative recipient" of U.S. foreign aid since World War II. Under the U.S. and Israel’s third Memorandum of Understanding signed by the two countries in 2016, the U.S. agreed to send $38 billion in military aid to Israel over a 10-year period.
Jodeh and a cohort of Jewish, Black, Latinx and Indigenous activists point to these numbers at demonstrations. At recent rallies, they encouraged attendees to contact Congress members and demand limitations to this aid.
Some progressive lawmakers are pushing for that. Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum introduced a bill in April that aims to prevent U.S. tax dollars from being used to violate the rights of Palestinian children or forcibly remove Palestinians from their homes. Amid Israel’s latest military campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Democrats in the U.S. House both introduced bills in May to block a $735 million arms sale to Israel.
The movement for a free Palestine has come into sharper focus after Israel’s recent siege on Gaza that killed more than 250 Palestinians, including 66 children, and injured nearly 2,000. Hamas militants fired thousands of rockets into Israel that killed 12 Israelis, including two children. Israeli sources told the United Nations hundreds were injured.
In Gaza, aid organizations say the resulting death, injury and infrastructure damage have deepened a humanitarian crisis there.
Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at University of Denver, says he would like to see the conversation center on how Americans can help.
“The onus and the responsibility on American citizens is infinitely greater, not only because Israel is the more powerful side, but critically, we're supporting that side,” he said. “It's our weapons that are being used to commit these atrocities.”
Israeli attacks on Gaza followed a string of events. Hamas militants fired rockets into Israel, most of which were intercepted by Israel's sophisticated defense system, after Israeli settlers repeatedly attacked Palestinians. The conflict also came after more Palestinians faced forced expulsion from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Israeli settlers claim a right to the land. The forced expulsions violate international law, UNRWA says, and Human Rights Watch calls this a reality of apartheid.
Neal Feldman has seen Palestinian dispossession firsthand. He has been part of the Colorado chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace since its inception in 2014 and says a life-changing youth group trip to Israel and Palestine years ago made him an activist.
“I remember seeing things like the rubble from houses that had been continually demolished and the presence of settler communities in the West Bank that were harassing indigenous Palestinians,” he said.
The movement for a free Palestine is not new, but activists and analysts say this moment feels different — and not only because more young American Jews like Feldman are speaking out.
“Just look at the rallies that have taken place around the world,” said University of Denver’s Hashemi. “I think the evidence is really everywhere if you're following the debate closely: Mainstream newspapers are reporting on the topic, op-ed pages of the major newspapers, major American news stations like MSNBC, very influential late-night talk show programs such as Trevor Noah, John Oliver. You've seen things that you've never seen before in terms of outright support for Palestinian rights, Palestinian dispossession.”
Social media has also provided an unvarnished window into what is happening in Palestine.
“A lot of credit goes to these young people in Sheikh Jarrah,” said Sandra Tamari, executive director of the Adalah Justice Project which advocates for Palestinian rights. She pointed to young Palestinians like 23-year-old Muna al-Kurd who launched the viral hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah several months ago. Israeli settlers have been living in part of her family’s home since 2009.
She and other activists, like her brother Mohammed al-Kurd, are “teaching the world about how you protect your home and how you protect your family from settler colonialism," Tamari said. "They have been very clear about what they're asking for and they've been very clear about the forces that they're facing — how these settlers are backed by state force.”
Tamari says Muna and Mohammed have taken a nod from the messages of Black liberation and protest in the U.S.
'You're with us'
Identifying the commonalities between liberation movements has long been central to Samia Assed's advocacy.
“Palestine is a feminist issue. It is an immigrant issue. It is a human rights issue,” she said.
Assed is a Palestinian American in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where her outreach across ethnic and racial lines surprised people at first.
“Ladies would tell me, 'Samia, you're the first Arab or hijabi woman that really sits down and talks with us. You’re like with us, like, you understand us.'”
Assed’s response to that is simple: “We are all the same, honey. We are all the same.”
She is from Dearborn, Michigan, which has one of the largest concentrations of Arab Americans in the U.S. In New Mexico, though, less than 10,000 Arab people call the state home, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Living in the Mountain West, away from that comfort zone in Michigan, has emboldened her to build coalitions with other marginalized populations.
“The solidarity among different communities has been solid,” she said, reflecting on the turnout of a recent pro-Palestine rally she organized in Alberquerque. “A good part of the organizing was with the Jewish Voice for Peace and the Jewish community. We also had Indigenous groups. We had the Chicano community. We had the white community.”
Assed’s intersectional work — which transcends social constructs like race and gender — has been in progress for many years. She says she has grown in a different capacity as an activist because the Arab and Palestinian communities in her area are small.
In Utah, Muna Omar is doing similar work. Omar, a Palestinian American, often feels like an outsider in Salt Lake City and says pop culture has deepened the problem. She points to Hollywood’s long-standing depictions of Arabs and Muslims as nefarious characters or terrorists.
“It's been creating this culture of demonizing Palestinians and believing that they are very different from us as Americans and thus not deserving of our empathy or of our activism,” Omar said.
This crystallized for her as a child when her family was targeted by federal agents following 9/11 and local media covered the event. It was “the biggest crash of my world,” she said. “I had never felt so isolated and targeted and I was just a child. At that point, I felt like, 'Wow, if this is what they think about me, then clearly they don't believe that I'm one of them.'”
At 26, she’s been an activist for the past eight years. But for the first time, a rally she recently organized drew hundreds of people. Similar to other activists in the region, she worked with organizations like the Party for Socialism and Liberation that center messages about oppression and people's struggles for freedom in other parts of the world.
“We were bringing up parallels to Kashmir, and Kurdistan, and what's going on right now in Ethiopia and the Tigray, and Puerto Ricans’ right to self-determination as well,” she said.
And right here in the U.S., one particular movement has animated a growing number of new activists to speak out on Palestine.
“I think people would not have been open to understanding what's going on in Palestine right now if they were not primed and prepared from the conversations and the debates that we were having last year regarding Black Lives Matter in the United States,” she said.
Discerning those parallels, Omar says, helps her derive power as an activist.
“I will always circle back to how important it is to understand the connections between our struggles," she said." That way, we can learn to empathize and organize better together.”