If you’re anything like me, then you were particularly bad at taking exams in elementary school that required memorizing dates of significant historical events.
That being said, May 15 was destined to be one of those dates that will forever be engrained in my memory. While not only marking the milestone of my birth, May 15 commemorates one of the largest exoduses of history, al-Nakba (translates to “the catastrophe” in Arabic), in which more than 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly exiled from the newly partitioned state of Israel in 1948.
Al-Nakba was an undeniably vital tactic for the Judaization of Israel and marked an immeasurable shift in socio-political hegemony that has subsequently come to define the identity of millions of ethnically Palestinian individuals like myself. Although heritage is somewhat of a static entity that is inherited generationally, identity, as the crux of contemporary anthropology and sociology suggest, is a reflexive and constructive process. I am of Palestinian-Arab origin, yet I am able to identify myself on terms of my own agency (i.e. nationality, gender or even heritage) and be identified by others with such features as well.
As a product of the Palestinian diaspora living in the U.S., my family has been fortunate enough to epitomize the American dream. At the time of al-Nakba in 1948, my father was an orphaned Palestinian street child who fled the conflict on foot through Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and finally to Chicago in 1953, which my family has called home ever since. After serving in the U.S. army in the 1960s, my father was able to attend college on the G.I. Bill, with only nine-years of prior schooling.
For over 60 years of working, paying taxes, becoming a home owners and starting a family, my parents, siblings and I have only known our American national identity. To my dismay, all these years of self-identifying as free and equal Americans were mitigated last year on my birthday, the day of remembering al-Nakba, as I found myself held in an Israeli Defense Force holding cell at the George Allenby border crossing shared between Jordan and the West Bank.
While being the only American out of 15 being held at the border against my will and without charges, I was refused access to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, and after a four-hour stint of being interrogated by soldiers, was finally allowed to continue onto my uncle’s house in the West Bank. I immediately contacted the U.S. embassy and my congressional representatives as soon as I gained access to a phone. But once again to my dismay, I was told that there was nothing the U.S. could do to protect Palestinian-American citizens in Israel against the prejudiced behaviors of the IDF.
This incident was not an isolated event and continues to happen to dozens of U.S. citizens crossing the George Allenby bridge every day. The irony of my family’s tax dollars going to fund institutionalized segregation against Americans abroad is something that not only brings up a largely moral dilemma in U.S. foreign policy, but also questions the notion of how to define nationality and identity for Palestinian-Americans. (The U.S. gives $3-5 billion in annual military aid to Israel.)
The ability to strip nationality and dictate identity reaches beyond a territorial conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; it is one of identity and the denial of Palestinian agency in representing identity. The forced exile of Palestinians as a result of al-Nakba has led to a proliferation of national identities rooted in the Palestinian heritage, starkly reminiscent to that of the Jewish diaspora over the last 2,000 years. Perhaps it is my privileged position as a U.S. citizen that left me outraged at the isolation of having my U.S. citizenship turned down with the denial of freedom, justice — and liberty — privileges I embody and expect to be accessible through U.S. embassies abroad. As I celebrated my birthday this year, I did so with the memory that I am in fact a second-class citizen, a reminder of the struggle my family has been working to avoid for the last 65 years.