Formidable pro-Palestinian voices in the US undeterred by repression

Support for Palestinians has never been so strong in the country since Oct. 7, although repression and intimidation are frightening some.

Formidable pro-Palestinian voices in the US undeterred by repression

Olivia Katbi wears a kuffiyeh during a demonstration. (Credit: Person photographed)

At a bar in Richmond, Virginia, Mariam was called a terrorist for the first time because she wore a gold pendant depicting the map of Palestine. "I was escorted out of the bar because I started protesting,” she said.

Since Oct. 7, Mariam has felt both disappointment and anger, castigating the world's and Washington’s inertia on the ongoing war in Gaza. Her family lived in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon and Mariam was born in the United States.

At 31, the medical assistant has always been proud of her origins and bilingualism. She has no intention of keeping quiet, continuing to wear her collar and kuffiyeh high.

The 31-year-old organizes tributes in front of the hospital where she works to health professionals killed in Gaza. She distributes leaflets every week and observes sit-ins. "I feel the need to talk to people, to educate them,” she explained.

Mariam's necklace representing Palestine. (Credit: Person photographed)

On Feb. 12, Mariam tried to convince members of Richmond's traditionally democratic city council to sponsor a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, as Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco had done.

"Most of my family members still live in refugee camps and are bombarded relentlessly by Israeli occupation forces with my tax dollars. While I can't control the fact that this money is killing my people, I'd like to think that I have the support of my city to at least say that this is wrong and that we condemn it," she told them. So far, no elected officials volunteered to introduce a resolution to this effect.

Post-Sept. 11 atmosphere

While the young woman says she's not afraid to express her ideas, others haven't had the chance to do so in complete safety.

In November, in Burlington, Vermont, Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ahmed, three Palestinian students wearing kuffiyehs and shouting Arabic slogans in the street, were shot and injured.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the US, recently announced that it had received 3,578 complaints — including discrimination in employment, education, hate crimes and incidents — in the last three months of 2023, an increase of 178 percent over the previous year.

Since Oct. 7, "the atmosphere has been similar to that after Sept. 11,” said CAIR's Director of Research and Advocacy Corey Saylor in a statement, although the federal government has launched initiatives to combat Islamophobia.

This is insufficient to many activists. According to Omar Zahzah, Assistant Professor in the Department of Race and Resistance at San Francisco State University, this state of affairs points to the responsibility of the democratic administration.

"The US government's unbridled support for the genocide of Palestinians translates into an open campaign against Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in general," argued the Lebanese-Palestinian academic.

Last November, the US House of Representatives voted to censor Palestinian-born Representative Rashida Tlaib's criticism of Israel over the war against Hamas.

'Freedom of expression'

The right to express one’s opinion is an internalized and institutionalized position in many universities and private companies.

Sophia Hamilton, a two-year employee of a well-known falafel restaurant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, claimed she was fired in mid-November after expressing solidarity with Gaza.

The 24-year-old American had refused to take part in a fundraising event for the Israeli association United Hatzalah of Israel. "I sent an e-mail to my manager saying I wouldn't take part unless we also agreed to raise funds for humanitarian aid in Gaza, which he refused to do," she confided.

As a sign of protest, she showed up at her workplace with a mini Palestinian flag hanging from her jacket. Although she had received a raise and positive comments from her supervisor a few days earlier, she was later fired for "poor performance.”

Sophia Hamilton with her pin of a Palestinian flag. (Credit: Person photographed)

Since Oct. 7, some of the most prestigious universities have also criticized certain infringements on freedom of expression, which is sacrosanct in the US.

"Some universities have suspended the chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace," said Zahzah.

Elizabeth Magill, head of UPenn, and then Claudine Gay, her counterpart at Harvard, were forced to resign under pressure from major donors after a controversial hearing before Congress to assess their response to the rise in anti-Semitism on their campuses.

It was enough to frighten many. "The atmosphere was extremely uncomfortable on my campus,” said an American-Lebanese teacher who requested anonymity. "I kept a low profile to avoid any confrontation. It's not the ideal scenario, but I don't want to lose my job," he added.

In 2014, during a previous war in Gaza, Steven Salaita was fired from his professorship at the University of Illinois after a series of tweets criticizing the Israeli bombardments. Now based in Cairo, the American of Palestinian-Jordanian origin admitted that he was unable to find a university job in the US.

Digital colonialism

“The level of repression we are witnessing is unprecedented since the height of the Cold War," he said.

“The solidarity movement with Palestine is showing a great deal of combativeness and courage, and more and more people are expressing themselves despite the real risk of being punished," he added.

People are even ostracized or targeted through "doxxing” when they show solidarity with Palestine. This practice refers to the non-consensual publication of personal details to incite harassment.

Olivia Katbi, 31, born in the US to a Jordanian father and active in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, is listed on the Canary Mission website. The site aims to identify activists who promote "hatred of the United States, Israel and Jews on North American campuses and beyond.”

"They know that apartheid, occupation and genocide cannot be defended, so they try to resort to personal attacks,” denounced the young woman, who confided that she has been "subjected to countless threats and harassment.”

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march in Washington, Oct. 21, 2023. (Credit: Ali Khaligh/AFP)

In his research, Zahzah analyzed Canary Mission, where he is also on file, as well as similar sites such as “They are an extension of the physical colonialism of the Israeli state, which strives to annihilate and erase the Palestinian presence," he explained. “They represent a form of digital colonialism.”

This is dangerous to other minorities in the US as well. A coalition of 1,000 black pastors representing hundreds of thousands of worshippers across the US called for a ceasefire in Gaza, the New York Times reported in late January.

"The same types of groups that took part in the women's marches, the anti-gun marches and the Black Lives Matter rallies are mobilizing for the Palestinians," said James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute.

Angry voters

"Today's unprecedented pro-Palestinian movements are largely explained by two factors: The outrageous brutality of Israel's genocidal campaign and the transformation of young voters, including among young progressive Jews and non-whites," continued the researcher.

According to a Wall Street Journal poll published on Sunday, about 40 percent of Democratic voters under 40 think the US is doing too much to support the Israelis.

With just a few months to go before the presidential election, the #AbandonBiden campaign launched by Arab-Muslim Democratic voters is gaining ground.

On Tuesday, Feb. 27, the democratic president may have won the Michigan primary, but he was severely punished for his support for Israel in this state with a large Muslim and Arab population. Just over 100,000 people (around 13 percent of voters) cast a blank ballot. This is a worrying result for Joe Biden, who narrowly (150,000 votes) won this pivotal state from Donald Trump four years ago.

"I hope, Mr. President, that you will hear us. That you will choose democracy over tyranny, that you will choose the American people over Benjamin Netanyahu,” said Abdullah Hammoud, the Lebanese-born mayor of Dearborn, a Detroit suburb, at a press conference.

“Trump would be a disaster in many ways," conceded Zogby. “But the Biden administration can't both insult people and count on their support; the burden is on them to change or lose."

On Tuesday night, the results of "Super Tuesday" should confirm the inexorability of a duel between the two men in November. “We must reject a political reality in which a president who proudly supports genocide is the lesser evil," said Zahzah. “The blood is on Biden's hands, and it's high time the Democratic Party stopped playing the superficial ‘but Trump!’ card to justify its actions."

This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated and edited by Yara Malka.

At a bar in Richmond, Virginia, Mariam was called a terrorist for the first time because she wore a gold pendant depicting the map of Palestine. "I was escorted out of the bar because I started protesting,” she said.Since Oct. 7, Mariam has felt both disappointment and anger, castigating the world's and Washington’s inertia on the ongoing war in Gaza. Her family lived in the Palestinian camps...