There are no clouds today, and so New York is happy.
I board the Manhattan-bound R train on 86th street in Brooklyn. It’s the middle of March 2019, and Within Our Lifetime, an activist group born of the New York City-wide chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, is hosting an event to celebrate Palestinian culture and resistance.
Though the latter name better characterizes the group’s spirit — well-educated and anxious, nervous about the future but willing to try to shape it — Within Our Lifetime more directly reflects its hopes and motivating principles. It’s a declaration that during the lives of its members, a liberated Palestine is inevitable.
What liberation is, what it actually means given the current geopolitical realities of the Middle East, is unclear.
I exit the R on 36th Street and wait to transfer to the N. I unconsciously pull my phone out of my pocket, and I drift to Within Our Lifetime’s Instagram account.
The images are familiar: Revolutionary posters from the 1960s and 1970s; screenshots of digital headlines or news articles germane to Palestinian activism; videos of cultural performances, some in celebration, others in protest; photos of martyred Palestinians; etcetera. In one, a legless man rests on a patch of wet sand, jean shorts covering his knees where his legs were blown off at an earlier demonstration, a cap on his head, a Palestinian flag in one hand, the pointer and middle fingers of his other hand in the shape of a V.
Within Our Lifetime represents a cross-section of the global Palestinian diaspora in general, and the U.S. Palestinian diaspora in particular. As a whole, the global diaspora is rich and varied, spanning multiple continents, classes, and experiences. In recent decades, it ceded its historic position at the vanguard of Palestinian liberation to Palestinians living under occupation (boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns notwithstanding.)
And as well it should have. It’s Palestinians currently in the West Bank or Gaza, or those languishing in multi-decade-old refugee camps, or those living as second-class Arab citizens of Israel, who have to face continuous slaughter, displacement, imprisonment, and apartheid. They ought to lead efforts to ensure their liberation, if only because they have the most to gain materially.
And yet the diaspora requires serious consideration, both as a political entity and as a space for cultural preservation and security. Palestinians who live free of occupation, who carry passports allowing them to travel freely and which confer upon them the rights and privileges of citizens belonging to stable and sovereign nation-states, continue to shape the global discourse on Palestine and on historical injustice. Understanding what the diaspora is, and the various roles that diaspora Palestinians play with respect to one another and with respect to the goal of Palestinian liberation, is necessary if it’s to ever become the force for change, indeed the force for return, that its members wish it to be.
(Though there certainly are sociopolitical, cultural, and economic overlaps between the diaspora in the U.S. and the diaspora elsewhere, my experience is almost exclusively limited to the former. And so I draw conclusions regarding its future and m.o. without assuming their applicability to diaspora communities elsewhere.)
Zionist Franz Krausz produced this poster in 1936 to attract European Jewish occupiers to Palestine. Members of the diaspora have since appropriated the poster.
I maintain that the most important question facing the Palestinian diaspora in the U.S. at present is that of its boundaries and, by extension, that of its limitations. What does it mean for a Palestinian living in New York to resist? To the extent that he or she works and pays taxes to state and federal governments which directly fund Israeli apartheid, what does resistance mean coming from a Palestinian who contributes at least indirectly to the subjugation of his or her people?
The University of Reading’s Bryan Cheyette envisions diasporas as composed of both the amalgam and the regressive — people defined by the experience of synthetizing cultures and languages on the one hand, and by the desire to return to an unchanged, unadulterated space on the other. In his Diasporas of the Mind, he constructs this experience along a spectrum: “At one end … diaspora is on the side of impurity and hybridity … and at the other end, diaspora is conservative and ‘roots-defined’ and has as its end-point a return to an autochthonous (pure) space.”
It’s the young Palestinian who was raised in the American Midwest, who understands Ramallah’s cultural markers as well as she does Chicago’s, and who code-switches seamlessly between the Arabic of her home and the Americanese of her school or workplace. It’s the young Palestinian in New York, who sports the cleanest Js and D’Angelo Russell jerseys, who drops the n-bomb and sounds like Cardi B when speaking English, and who switches to the most rural of Palestinian dialects at home, where filial piety is taken for granted and respect for the parents is paramount.
In Diasporas, Stephane Dufoix offers a more conservative approach to theorizing diaspora. Referencing the political scientist Daniel Elazar, Dufoix centers the classic notion of diaspora about the Jewish experience. (Classic, at least, in the Euro-American imagination.) In resisting any drastic changes to its self-conception and outward expression, the European Jewish community managed to carve out a place for itself in a relatively alien continent following its expulsion from Palestine. Though European Jewry by definition cultivated a distinctly European aesthetic, culture, and history, the fact that it managed to retain its Jewishness at all, and that it acknowledged that Jewishness as sourced from Palestine, defines the orthodox (no pun intended) conception of diaspora.
“To the extent that he or she works and pays taxes…which directly fund Israeli apartheid, what does resistance mean coming from a Palestinian who contributes at least indirectly to the subjugation of his or her people?”
It seems only reasonable to synthesize both scholars’ positions, if only to develop a way to talk about diaspora that isn’t dogmatic, and which can be adapted to suit whatever needs are present: The experience of diaspora focalizes the dispersal of a group from a place to which it cannot return, which results in that group’s reconstitution somewhere else. This rebirth exists along a spectrum, with one end firmly rooted in some imagined notion of home, and the other based in the realities of existing in a new and foreign space.
I exit the N on 34th Street – Herald Square. I side-step the slow and the uncertain and climb the stairs out of the subway and into Manhattan. There are only two characteristics both tourists and natives agree distinguish midtown Manhattan from other heavily photographed neighborhoods in equally large cities across the world: the shade and the smell. Of course there are cities where the skyscrapers cast longer shadows on pedestrians. (Hong Kong comes to mind.) And there are likely smellier places, too.
But nowhere else do buildings block out the sun while at the same time the street smells of nothing but urine soaked in vomit covered in a shallow membrane of bubbling sulfur. You may think I dislike the smell, but I don’t. It’s comforting to know at least one thing about New York refuses to change. I walk north towards 37th Street, and I eventually arrive at the Peoples’ Forum, where Within Our Lifetime’s event will be held.
A coffee shop and bookstore in the front, and an organizational space in the back with a stage encircled by foldout chairs, the People’s Forum is one socialist lawyer’s posthumous gift to like-minded-but-still-living comrades. A space in which to gather and conspire.
Passing the impressively large glass doors, it’s clear that, at least for today, one end of the diaspora experience exerts a far more visible influence on the People’s Forum than the other: aesthetically, very little about how the space is decorated for today’s event can be described as explicitly American. In each corner lurks a Palestinian flag, and the colors of the revolution (green, red, black, and white) are everywhere.
A painter is hanging two of his works along one wall, one conspicuously featuring Fairouz and Umm Kulthum. Pop art of Leila Khaled is on display. Two young men representing a brand called Arabian Essence stand behind a table, on top of which are clothes for sale featuring Palestinian textiles and images, from keffiyehs to maps of historic Palestine. The Dufoix-Cheyette matrix requires editing, because here we have evidence not just of a pining for a precolonial, imagined homeland. Here is a conscious vaunting of the revolution that bloomed more than a decade after Palestine’s destruction.
A revolution that has aged.
There’s something paradoxical about this. Political revolutions are supposed to be short, sudden events that occupy relatively little space in time before state and citizenry move on to a post-revolutionary phase. Ours has instead lasted for decades, and now seems to construct as much of a dreamscape for diaspora Palestinians as does a 19th century Palestine free of European Jewish colonization. At what point does a movement become a revolution? At what point does a revolution become part of a war? At what point does that war end?
I take a seat and wait for attendees to trickle in, all the while ruminating on a conversation I had with Zena Agha.
“The question of Palestine today, at this exact moment and in certain diaspora spaces where it’s possible to soberly assess resistance at a distance, isn’t a question of liberation.”
Zena is a writer, an activist, and a Harvard graduate. She’s also a U.S. Policy Fellow at Al-Shabaka, the Palestine Policy Network. On its website, Al-Shabaka describes itself as “an independent, non-partisan, and non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law.”
I asked Zena if she would speak with me about Palestine, and so we met in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, where we were both writing fellows. Located in a nondescript building in Chelsea, which is surprising because nondescript is largely disallowed in Chelsea, the workshop is home to the single most impressive library of Asian-American literature I have ever seen. Adjacent to the usual clutter for which writers are often responsible, I asked Zena the question at the heart of international Palestinian activism: Will we return in our lifetime?
She looked down, and answered with the neutral tone of a person who’s more than familiar with the question he or she was just asked, “If I were to speak from a policy perspective, I would say it’s unlikely that we would return in our lifetime. But if I were to speak as an organizer and a Palestinian, I would say yes, absolutely. Partly because you need that to keep doing the work that you do. But I feel like the direction that Israel is going in implies that there will be one state for everyone. The question now is how they will [all] live.”
The question of Palestine today, at this exact moment and in certain diaspora spaces where it’s possible to soberly assess resistance at a distance, isn’t a question of liberation. It’s a question of how to contend with the only sovereign government operating within Palestinian borders. Whether or not Israel is an apartheid state was never a point of contention among those conscious of the settler-colonialism that animates its politics and punctuates its history.
The question was always what kind of apartheid state it will be. One whose racism is explicitly formalized in law? Or a variant where the racism lurks between the margins, scaffolding ignored by those who don’t want to see it? And what about the diaspora? What about those of us who aren’t direct victims of Israeli apartheid?
Zena added soberly, honestly, “If you were to look at that reality, with all the stratification, there’s only one state. And it’s currently called Israel. I think the one state they built themselves is completely unsustainable. I think within our lifetime, we will definitely see the dismantling of Israeli apartheid, and hopefully a transition to one democratic state for all people. But I don’t know if that necessarily means Palestine will be decolonized, or that we will have the right of return.”
The dismantling of Israeli apartheid doesn’t imply a resolution to the questions plaguing the diaspora. Just as importantly, it doesn’t imply freedom for Palestinians, especially if those still living in Palestine experience a final expulsion. On mundane subway rides, I like to think the Palestine Liberation Organization planned the whole thing. That they surrendered in Oslo fully aware that Israel will fail to live up to every promise it made. That it would swallow us whole, all along setting the stage for the Zionist regime to either accept its downfall, kill millions resisting said downfall, or complete its colonization of Palestine by rounding up all remaining Palestinians and tossing them out.