Last month, Palestinians everywhere commemorated Al Nakba, the catastrophe that befell us when Israel was founded on the ruins of Palestinian towns, villages, cities, that were and remain ethnically cleansed of their indigenous people, to make room for the immigrating Jewish Zionist settlers. Over the past few years, we have been intentional in pointing out that Al Nakba is not a historic moment frozen Pompeii-like in the past, but an ongoing daily lived reality for Palestinians everywhere. We keep losing more land to the illegal settlements, as our homes are still demolished either in collective settlements, or to make room for an apartheid bypass road, as the siege on Gaza continues, and as refugees are still denied the Right of Return. It is estimated that one in three refugees globally is Palestinian, and while the statistics may have recently changed as a result of the horrific war in Syria, it still represents a huge percentage, considering Palestine’s relatively small population, numbering less than one million in 1948.
The combined effects of the ongoing occupation, siege, land theft, extra-judicial executions, and denial of the Right of Return have led to discussions of an ongoing Nakba, even as we celebrate, in Palestine solidarity circles, the discursive change that has finally shattered the Zionist stranglehold on the mainstream narrative around the question of Palestine. Consequently, while the circumstances of the Palestinians remain dire, today there is at least an acknowledgement that they have been victimized by Zionism. And with that growing acknowledgement is a growing number of activists seeking to end the injustice. As it allows for justice-minded individuals and groups to engage in solidarity with the Palestinian people, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is proving unstoppable, even as politicians at all levels, from New York Governor Cuomo to presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, seek to legislate against it.
But solidarity must be reciprocal. And Diaspora Palestinians living in the US must also seek to redress the consequences of the catastrophe that befell the indigenous people of the land we now inhabit. Many of us do recognize this injustice, and frequently begin our talks and lectures with an acknowledgement that we are speaking on stolen Indigenous land. But we can and should do more.
I recently spoke to middle school children in the school district where I live about Al Nakba. I took two handouts with me. One was the map of North America, showing the tribes and the territories they inhabited prior to Europe’s conquest of this continent. The other was the “Palestinian loss of land” postcard, showing the respective Jewish and non-Jewish populations of historic Palestine, from 1946 to 2011.
The response was very revealing. Students looked at the map of North America with curiosity, interest, but also with no guilt, no accountability. It felt “safe” to them to read the names of the tribes that lived where they, the descendants of immigrants, now do. Many had a one-word comment: “Cool.” They liked that map, not recognizing it was a visual representation of devastation, even genocide.
With the “Loss of Palestinian land” postcard, there was … silence. I prodded the students for some response, some feedback, and it became clear the silence was not because they had nothing to say, but rather because they were shocked at what the postcard depicted. One seventh grade Social Studies teacher kept looking at the map, and asking out loud “How could this happen? What were they thinking? The United Nations did this? What were they thinking?” And again, like a broken record, “what were they thinking?”
Did that teacher also wonder what the European settlers of North America were thinking? Why were the students and teachers not horrified at the map of their country prior to its colonization?
The assumption is that, with North America, it’s over. The harm was done over five centuries ago, the Native Americans are all gone, we celebrate Thanksgiving every November to remember the days when we couldn’t have survived without them, and the rest is ancient history, completely unrelated to our present circumstances.
And yet the indigenous catastrophe of Turtle Continent, just like our Nakba, is also ongoing.
The reservations, broken treaties, environmental racism, are very much a part of the present for Native Americans. Without engaging in Oppression Olympics, we need to point out that while African Americans serve longer sentences than whites for the same crime (assuming whites do serve any time at all, that is), the fact remains that Native Americans serve even longer than Blacks for the same crime, and are proportionately sentenced to death even more than Blacks.
Percentage wise, Native Americans have the highest suicide rates of any other community in the US. The legal system which allows reservations to carry out their own laws also serves to protect non-Natives from the consequences of their crimes, which means that a white person can (almost) get away with murder on a reservation.
In the wake of the horrific mass shooting at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando, Florida, we need to point out that this is not the worst mass shooting in US history, but that US history is a history of mass shootings of the indigenous peoples, from Bloody Island to Sand Creek to Wounded Knee. A conservative number puts the dead at Wounded Knee at 300, other estimates go up to 500. These massacres were not carried out by civilians with modern assault rifles, they were nonetheless large-scale massacres of innocent civilians. And as we speak of mass killings before assault rifles, we need to recall the mass lynchings of African Americans, including the horrific lynching of 237 sharecroppers seeking to unionize.
Nobody ever wins when comparing oppressions, and none of these historical mass killings take away from the horror of the Pulse shooting, with its lethal mix of distinctly anti-queer, [email protected] hatred, yet they need to be recalled as we discuss the blood-soaked history of the nation we now call home.
As Palestinians discuss our circumstances and explain our dispossession as a contemporary form of settler-colonialism, it is incumbent on us to always foreground the consequences of settler-colonialism in the Americas, where most of the Native American who survived the genocide that followed the Europeans’ arrival on these shores are now living in abject poverty in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, many of them homeless, too many of them behind bars, while the successful few face immense social and legal challenges as they seek to revive their cultural heritage, languages, customs, traditional (and much healthier) diets, and dignity.
Palestinians today are proud of the alliances we have forged with criminalized American communities: African Americans, immigrants, Muslims. But we need to do better with regards to Native Americans, on whose land we now live, and whose Nakba is not over. The struggle is the same, from Gaza to Ferguson, but also, from Haifa to all of Turtle Continent. Mohammad Ali spoke of “service to others” as “the rent we pay for living on this earth.” Whatever factors brought Palestinians to live in the USA, speaking of the ongoing Native American Nakba, and creating anti-colonial alliances that better the circumstances of this country’s indigenous peoples, should be the rent we pay, for our stay here.