When I left Youngstown, Ohio for Palestine over two decades ago, serious conversations about Palestinians were fringe, if not taboo. Those who knew anything about the topic didn’t want to discuss it, while others were simply uninformed (I’ll never forget meeting Americans who thought I was from Pakistan).
Fast forward to today, Palestine and Israel are openly discussed, from college campuses across the country to the airwaves of the Public Broadcasting Service, which recently aired a new documentary, Naila and the Uprising, a story of a courageous, non-violent women’s movement that formed the heart of the Palestinian struggle for freedom during the 1987 uprising, known as the First Intifada.
The absolute sea-change is undeniable. But its source might surprise you. For much of today’s barrier-breaking is being done by American Jews.
During the first Intifada, back in the late 80s, we in the Palestinian student movement in the US encouraged US citizens to go and witness what was happening in Palestine firsthand, with their own eyes, and to experience the occupation for themselves. They did, by the thousands, and have clearly internalized how the US is not a far-away observer to this conflict but a primary stakeholder.
Over time, as the US-monopolized peace process crumbled and Israel crossed so many moral red lines, primarily with its military aggressions and prolonged siege of the Gaza Strip, but also throughout other parts of the occupied territory, more and more Jewish Americans travelled on eyewitness visits in an attempt to make sense of where this conflict was heading.
Organizations like Encounter and Extend perfected the experience of facilitating such trips. Thousands visited and crossed the Green Line and the Separation Wall, challenging the physical and mental barrier in order to engage Palestinians directly.
I know this because over the past decade, I have spoken to hundreds of such groups. I have witnessed people’s minds opening up in front of me.
This is not to say that these groups are politically in agreement with me. But after learning more about what the occupation is and how it is affecting an entire population, most find themselves morally in agreement that it cannot continue, especially as it is being done in their names, as Jews.
Coinciding with this critical mass of visitors, a plethora of Jewish American organizations sprouted up to appeal to all appetites of activism emerging in the Jewish American community, from J Street all the way to Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now.
And of course, added to all this is social media. The internet and the increased proficiency by Palestinians to make use of it has allowed Israel’s occupation to be transmitted to your screen, wherever you are. Now what the Palestinians have been facing and screaming about for decades can be witnessed in real time.
Even Israel’s separation barrier can’t compete with that.