On May 10, a historic event took place in the halls of power in Washington. Members of the U.S. Congress, their staffs, and more than a hundred activists, advocates, and survivors packed a Senate committee room to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the violent evictions we Palestinians call the “Nakba” (disaster) about a quarter of the way Three of the Palestinians come from their homeland’s Zionist militias.
Titled “Nakba 75 and the Palestinian People,” the event was the first of its kind held by Congress. It was successful not only because it gave voice to the Palestinians at the center of American imperial power, but also because it resisted efforts to be shut down.
The day before the event was scheduled to take place, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tried to block it.He canceled our reservations for the Congressional Auditorium at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, falsely accusing us organizers of “traffic[ing] In anti-Semitism tropes about Israel”.
But McCarthy couldn’t stop us. Senator Bernie Sanders stepped in and welcomed the event in the chamber of his Senate committees on health, education, labor and pensions.
As a Palestinian-American and one of the key organizers, the experience was deeply personal and profound. It reminded me of all the challenges I — and many Palestinian-Americans like me — have faced trying to make our voices heard. It can prove that America is changing.
Repression of Palestine in Congress
Historically, the American public has not given much thought to the Palestinian issue.It generally accepts the Zionist narrative that when Jews, Europeans norm victim, to fix it and escape the violence. Most Americans always sympathize with Israelis rather than Palestinians, who are often seen as “violent Orientals”.
This popular support has been reflected in Congress and the White House, and the United States has become Israel’s largest supporter and sponsor. Washington has provided about $158 billion in aid to Tel Aviv so far, making it the largest recipient of US aid.
State legislatures and the U.S. Congress regularly pass pro-Israel resolutions and legislation. Dozens of states have approved legal measures to counter the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which aims to force Israel to comply with international law.
Meanwhile, successive U.S. administrations have urged Arab states to normalize relations with Israel, most recently through the so-called Abraham Accords.
Israel has a powerful lobby in the United States. According to a recent report, the 10 largest Zionist groups in the US collectively hold more than $500 million in assets; in 2022 alone, they will spend $70 million in Congress pushing for unconditional support for Israel.
Of course, there are MPs who speak out for Palestinian rights. For example, in 2017, Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum introduced groundbreaking legislation called the Promoting the Human Rights of Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is also a prominent advocate for Palestinian rights. During his presidential campaign, he called for more accountability for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and publicly criticized Israel’s settlement expansion.
But McCollum and Sanders have been in the minority. This representational imbalance makes it extremely difficult for Palestinian rights advocates to work in Congress and throughout the halls of power in Washington, trying to raise awareness, engage in meaningful discussions, and promote legislation that supports the Palestinian cause.
change is coming
I faced this challenging environment when I became involved in pro-Palestinian activism my junior year of high school. Despite all the talk in academia and politics about the importance of human rights and freedoms, the silence around Palestinian rights left me feeling marginalized.
As a Palestinian-American, I aspire to acknowledge my heritage, acknowledge the struggles my community faces, and bring justice to Palestine.
I started working for the Colorado state legislature in my final year of college. There, too, the struggle of the Palestinians was completely ignored. It’s really frustrating, but to be expected.
Palestine was a curse word in American politics until Representative Tlaib was elected in 2018. As the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress, she opened doors long closed to pro-Palestinian advocates.
Three years later, in January 2021, when Iman Jodeh, the first Muslim Palestinian-American woman elected to the Colorado state legislature, took office, things began to change for me personally. Seeing her work to amplify the voices of all marginalized communities gave me a sense that change is possible.
Months later, tensions escalated in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem where Israel has perpetrated vicious ethnic cleansing of Palestinians through forced deportations. For the first time, two Palestinians, Muna and Mohammad Kurd, broke into the American mainstream and challenged the Israeli narrative. The American media gave them some room to speak, and finally focused on Israel’s massacre of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
In the spring and summer of 2021, global outrage over Israeli crimes triggered a serious shift in the American public zeitgeist.
The shift in attitude among Democratic supporters was particularly pronounced. In a 2023 Gallup poll, 49% of Democrats said they had more sympathy for the Palestinians than for the Israelis, up from 38% a year ago.
The shift has encouraged Palestinians to continue their efforts to lobby for their cause in the halls of power. We’ve seen the results of it with Americans for Justice in Palestine (AJP).
In 2022, AJP Operations has a record-breaking 803 U.S. voters registered with our program to advocate for Palestinian rights in Congress; they met with more than 130 congressional offices.
Bill HR2590, which the AJP operative supported and lobbied to limit foreign aid from Israel, reached 32 co-sponsors last year, up from 13 when it was first introduced in 2021 — an unimaginable number just a few years ago.
These successes make me more confident in my work with members of Congress to try to change entrenched American politics about Israel-Palestine and push for legislation that supports Palestinian rights.
Supporting Palestine is still an uphill battle in Congress, but it is no longer impossible.
Our event on May 10th proved this. For the first time, survivors of Nakba were able to recount traumatic memories of the violence and pain they suffered and be heard in the halls of Congress; Mahmoud Darwish’s symbolic poem “In This Land “(On This Land), a poem about the Palestinians’ love for their land, was read for the first time.
Commemorating the catastrophe on Capitol Hill is a milestone in our ongoing struggle for recognition and justice. Despite efforts to silence us, we have raised our voices and reached far beyond what our critics expected.
Nakba didn’t end in 1948. It continues, and Palestinians continue to be dispossessed, ethnically cleansed and killed. But we have demonstrated that even in the halls of Capitol Hill, there is a force ready to deal with Israeli atrocities.
This is the power of grassroots organizations. This is the importance of representation. Such is the resilience of the Palestinian American community.
This event would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of the Palestinian rights advocates who came before me. We will live in its spirit as we continue to fight for a future where Palestinians are no longer marginalized or forgotten, but recognized, respected and free. The road ahead may be challenging, but with the determination, unity and support of our allies, we believe that tomorrow will be brighter for Palestine.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.