How Do We Celebrate Arab American Heritage Month During a Genocide?

A year ago, on March 31st, President Joe Biden proclaimed the month of April Arab American Heritage Month. It was an event which received little fanfare and by which the majority of the nation was ostensibly unmoved. However, for an author and public school teacher like me—an American-born citizen who has never been represented in the census as anything other than “White” until now—it was an important symbol. Arab Americans were finally being recognized for our rich and diverse culture, as well as for our contributions to this country.

But this proclamation never meaningfully altered America’s political psyche. Our actual citizenship—particularly that of Palestinian Americans—continues to be negated. The glaring evidence of this exists in the increase of billions of dollars in military aid to Israel. President Biden has ignored the voices of his Palestinian American constituents who have expressed their unrelenting dissent in daily public disruptions and demonstrations across major cities (as well as in front of the White House), demanding a permanent ceasefire. Members of his staff have resigned and still he balks. His memory seems selective: our political bloc helped get him elected in 2020.

In polls conducted by AAI, “45 percent of Arab Americans said that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was one of their top concerns.” This election is being shaped by the “uncommitted vote” movement. We were looking to a Democratic administration with hope, but have been met with arrogant silence, equivocation, and political spin.

The month of April began with the adoption of a UN security resolution for an immediate ceasefire, which was then shamelessly flouted by Israel and its enabler, the US government. Over 32,000 Palestinians have been killed since the siege began and the displaced populations are now facing starvation. Like millions of Palestinians in the diaspora, I watch ethnic cleansing in real time. An awful, collective sense of survivor’s guilt and helplessness makes it hard to breathe. That feeling is exacerbated by the awareness of our complicity—the taxes we pay every year to fund this violence and oppression.

In a month intended to commemorate Arab heritage, how can I reconcile my deep ancestral roots in a violently occupied country with my citizenship of a nation that finances its obliteration? This dissonant existence is precisely what President Biden, his administration, and millions of silent Americans expect us to inhabit. Why? Because Palestinian lives are simply not valued, and, by inheritance, neither are Palestinian Americans.

Dehumanization is perpetuated at the top. Days after October 7th, President Biden repeated dangerous false narratives about the Hamas attack. He later licked an ice cream between hollow statements about a possible ceasefire. In February, a video was released showing a contemptuous Nancy Pelosi physically shooing away pro-Palestine protestors and, at one point, pretending to charge at them.

Another captured Hillary Clinton smiling dismissively at protestors during a speaking event. How can these Democrats claim to be defenders of human rights when they exclude Palestinians? Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre never mentions the latest death toll in Gaza, and refuses to use the words “Palestinians” or “Palestine.” Why? Because to name them is to accept culpability in their extermination and displacement.

The rest of us are forced to bear witness to the endless, absolute, irrefutable horror that Gazans have endured for seven months. Daily, we watch through our phones and laptops, squeezing out anything we can from our feeds. Watching has fractured our basic sense of safety, of joy.

For some, the consumption of unmitigated suffering is dangerous. It cultivates a destructive narrative around Palestinians: They are to blame for their own deaths. They are terrorists, they are sub-human, they are expendable, they cannot be trusted to tell the truth, they are religious fanatics. Ultimately, such unyielding consumption of dead babies with burnt faces or broken bodies pulled from the rubble dehumanizes all of us.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Americans are gaslit daily as we try to educate our peers, colleagues, neighbors, and employers. We are forced to scrounge for exceptional figures to hold up to our white American counterparts, exclaiming, “See here? We’re valuable! We’re educated! We’re talented!” Meaningful and historically accurate education is blocked and unwelcome.

In my own classroom, this is the first year of my twenty-seven-year tenure that my students have invoked Gaza and Palestine in research paper topics and in class discussions on intersectional resistance and solidarity. To normalize such engagement is to effect powerful change.

Spaces like the Palestine Museum in Connecticut and the Museum of the Palestinian People (MPP) in Washington, D.C. are invaluable. With only small volunteer staffs, they serve public education on the history of resistance and movements for liberation.

The first time I visited the MPP was last summer on a weekend trip with my daughter, sister, and niece. I wanted to catch the exhibit by the artist and scholar Wafa Ghnaim before it closed. I hadn’t anticipated my intense emotional response. Mounted on the walls were my parents’ stories (re)told, the portraits of indigenous families and their land, and a celebration of our rich artifacts. Proof Palestinians did—and do—exist. Notably, the main gallery is a very small physical space which can comfortably hold only fifteen to twenty people—perhaps emblematic of our community’s sparse representation in the very capital of our country. To me, it felt like home.

To step back outside felt jarring, though familiar. Ignorance and bigotry abound in our daily lives. Since October 7th, hate crimes committed against Palestinian Americans have increased. On October 15, a little boy who lived in a suburb not far from where I myself live, was fatally stabbed multiple times. In late November, another act of extreme violence was blamed on a keffiyeh. Nowadays, I find myself quickly scanning parking lots, deciding whether or not I’ll remove my own keffiyeh—a Palestinian symbol of our homeland which I’ve been wearing daily to school—in order to avoid harassment.

Is a black and white-checkered scarf more offensive than a MAGA hat? Does my belonging to this country mean I am to shed my Palestinian identity? Will this make Arab Heritage Month more palatable?*

In my high school, the current Diversity-Equity-Inclusion (DEI) efforts have excluded any discussion of the genocide in Gaza or even any opportunity to address the history of the occupation of Palestine among faculty. This is the case for many public educational institutions across the nation. Palestinian Americans are virtually invisible in academic curricula and instructional texts. Such a gross disparity directly contradicts the mission of DEI, which is to hold space for communities impacted by bigotry and racism. If Arab American Heritage Month was formed under the auspices of DEI, then we’ve failed our students, and ourselves, as American citizens.

Thirty days of posters celebrating Bella Hadid and Rami Youssef are not enough to elevate and protect our humanity. This month, I’ll be asking my students critical questions: What is the purpose of a heritage month? Is it to humanize historically marginalized populations? And why are we charged with humanizing ourselves? What does that suggest about who belongs to this country?

This Arab American Heritage Month must do more than commemorate exceptionalism and capitalist contributions like sports and entertainment. It should be about being intentional and educating ourselves about Palestine, as well as supporting Palestinian organizations. It should be about joining protests in our cities and towns, and disrupting events that seek to silence dissent.

All across our classrooms this month, every single day, we should be teaching social justice that does not exclude Palestinians. We simply cannot hail DEI if we don’t talk about the genocide in Gaza.

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