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Immigration & Emigration

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PALESTINIAN AMERICANS
   
submitted by Andrew Dabdoub
09.05.2007

One of the few studies of the Palestinian experience in the United States was published by Kathleen Christison in the Journal of Palestine Studies in 1989. It details how Palestinian Americans for the most part have adapted quickly and successfully to American society while retaining a remarkable level of awareness of and involvement in the culture and politics of the land from which they or their predecessors came. She argues that there is no correlation between the extent of assimilation and the level of Palestinian nationalism: those who identify most strongly with their Palestinian roots are not necessarily the least American of the group.

Alienation seems to be rare among Palestinian Americans, though it does exist for certain segments of the population. Older Palestinians who come to the United States with grown children who support them tend to be the most alienated because they do not need to learn English to survive, they tend to socialize within the group, and they generally have the least amount of contact with the rest of American culture. Women more than men are more prone to feel alienated from American society because, in many cases, they are kept from the mainstream culture so that they may perform the primary role in imparting the Palestinian culture to their children.

Others are simply more tradition-bound and guard against the effects of the more open and liberal Western society. They oppose much that is common in the dominant culture, such as open sexuality, divorce, and drugs and alcohol, for religious and cultural reasons. They worry about raising their children here, especially girls, and some even resort to sending their children back to the Middle East for education during crucial teenage years.

Many Palestinian Americans, however, retain a Palestinian identity while identifying themselves as Americans first and foremost. Christison profiles an owner of a jewelry store in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who came to America from the West Bank when he was seven and is active in local business and politics. He married a woman from his home village and is active in promoting the Palestinian cause through the American political system. He is on the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's executive committee and was one of eight Palestinian American delegates at the 1988 Democratic convention.

Though Palestinian Americans have generally had a smooth transition to a new culture, many still feel unsettled because of tensions in their homeland and specifically the lack of a Palestinian state. Studies of Palestinian Americans report that few say they have been the subject of overt discrimination based on their ethnicity. However, many say that they are often made to feel foreign, or not fully American. Certain people they encounter want to classify them as "Arab," as if this were incompatible with being an American. Some Palestinian Americans also find that they are accepted personally but that a distinction is drawn between them and their people in the Middle East. Many Americans apparently identify Palestinians with the few extremists who commit terrorist acts to publicize the plight of Palestine or to discredit by association the moderate factions they oppose. The Palestinians in the United States resent this characterization, and they often fault the media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which, in their view, does not do enough to educate the public about their history and the injustices they continue to suffer. On the other hand, the consensus is that seven years of the intifada and Israeli reaction to it has done a lot to dramatize the Palestinians' plight and turn public opinion toward a solution that includes a Palestinian state alongside Israel.


FAMILY AND COMMUNITY DYNAMICS

As with many other immigrant groups coming from a more traditional society to a modern Western one, the Palestinian immigrants in the first half of this century experienced a breakdown in the nature of the hierarchical and patriarchal extended family. Whether the father was away from home as an itinerant peddler or just working long hours, his authority decreased, especially in families where the mother was also involved with the family business. The influence of education and economic opportunities and American culture generally led to more nuclear families with fewer children. Women's participation in the economic sphere of the family in time reduced the number of restrictive customs. Except for some families that remained highly traditional, most Muslim women shed their veils when they emigrated, and both Christian and Muslim women generally ceased to cover their heads as they had been required to do in their former culture.

By the time of World War II, women had become increasingly independent. They were more often allowed to remain single and there was much less family control over their choices. The segregation of the sexes was mostly limited to mosques, and marriages occurred later and were usually not arranged. Many saw marriage as the opportunity to be liberated from parental control and to establish their own identity closer to that of the mainstream culture that they had grown up with through school and the media.

Evidence suggests that in the 1990s many families encourage marriage to other Palestinians either through community organizations that foster social contacts with others in the group or even by traveling to hometowns in the Middle East to find potential spouses. Despite these efforts some inter-ethnic and inter-religious marriages take place, and in most cases this does not put insurmountable strain on relations between the generations. However, in the families that remain the most traditional, prohibitions on dating, limits on friendships with non-Palestinians, and even extensive restrictions on the style of dress are all used to limit the influence of American culture. When they exist, though, these conditions are much more likely to be applied, or more severely applied, to girls than to boys.


EDUCATION

Along with the Lebanese, Palestinians have the highest education rate in the Middle East. In the United States approximately 35 percent of Palestinian men and 11 percent of women have at least a college degree. This compares with a rate of just over 20 percent for the American adult population in general. Though they have always been aware of the politics and history of their homeland, Palestinian American students are increasingly taking an interest in studying Arab language and culture more formally in college and graduate school. A number of Palestinian or Arab organizations are also making an effort to monitor and improve the teaching of Arab history and culture in the nation's schools.

RELIGION

Most Arab Americans are Christian—representing Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches.

EMPLOYMENT AND ECONOMIC TRADITIONS

Many of the Palestinian immigrants early in the century became itinerant peddlers in the United States, selling jewelry and trinkets that could be carried easily in a suitcase. They quickly learned enough English to emphasize that their wares were authentic items from the Holy Land. As more Palestinians came over, new opportunities opened up for the more experienced to provide services related to bringing immigrants over and setting them up in business as peddlers.

The large percentage of Palestinian immigrants since the 1967 war who are educated is reflected in the increased numbers of professionals among their ranks. A study of Palestinian Arab immigrants from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, published in 1994, used the 1980 census to look at socioeconomic characteristics. Among the 90 percent of Palestinian American men and 40 percent of women who are in the labor force, 40 percent and 31 percent, respectively, have either professional, technical, or managerial positions. There are also large numbers in sales: 26 percent of men, and 23 percent of women. The self-employment rate for men is a significant 36 percent (only 13 percent for women), compared to 11 percent for non-immigrant men. Of the self-employed, 64 percent are in retail trade, with half owning grocery stores. In terms of income, the mean for Palestinian families in 1979 was $25,400, with 24 percent earning over $35,000 and 20 percent earning less than $10,000.


POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Christison's study found that while Palestinian Americans are typically not more politically active than the population at large they are very politically aware of their history and the issues facing their homeland. They are more active in social organizations, such as mosques, churches and local associations, than in political ones, though the former have strong political implications. In the absence of a Palestinian state, the unity and preservation of communities in the diaspora serve to maintain Palestinian identity.

For example, Jacksonville, Florida, has a large contingent of immigrants from the Christian town of Ramallah, in the West Bank just north of Jerusalem. This community was long a close-knit Palestinian social unit, and it was strengthened by the formation in 1958 of the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine, which now has over 25,000 members nationwide. Until the mid-1960s the community identified primarily with its roots in Ramallah, rather than Palestine generally. George Salem, who grew up in the community, says that in the 1950s and early 1960s, "We knew we were from Ramallah; we didn't really know whether it was Jordan or Palestine or what." But this changed after the PLO was formed and especially since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. These events, culminating in the intifada, have heightened Palestinian American solidarity with those in their homeland and added a sense of urgency to finding a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

INDIVIDUAL AND GROUP CONTRIBUTIONS

In part owing to their small numbers, and perhaps also because of their tendency, as described above, to work more quietly behind the scenes, few Palestinian Americans are widely known. However, based on their educational and professional status there are undoubtedly many Palestinian Americans in positions of prominence in various fields, such as the business leaders and Democratic National Convention delegates mentioned above.

ACADEMIA

Edward Said was professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York City; author of numerous scholarly and general interest books, including The Question of Palestine; he was a member of the Palestine National Council. Born in Jerusalem in 1935, the son of Palestinian Christians who were Anglican, he was educated in Cairo after the family was forced tp leave to that city in 1947.

Regarding the politics of his homeland he has said, "My endless beef with the Palestinian leadership is that they've never grasped the importance of America as clearly and as early as the Jews.

Most Palestinian leaders, like Arafat, grew up in tyrannical countries like Syria or Jordan, where there's no democracy at all. They don't understand the institutions of civil society, and that's the most important thing!"

Mohamed Rabie is another of many Palestinian Americans in academia. He has a Ph.D. in economics and taught at Kuwait University and Georgetown University before moving to the University of Houston.

He has authored many books on Middle East Affairs, including The Other Side of the Arab Defeat, The Politics of Foreign Aid, and The Making of American Foreign Policy.

Rabie is the president of the Center for Educational Development and a member of various social and professional associations, including the Middle East Economics Association and the Middle East Studies Association.

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS

George Salem served as solicitor of labor in the Reagan administration. He grew up in the Jacksonville, Florida, Ramallah community described above. Even though the community had a strong identity and there were 13 Ramallah families within a three-block radius of his house, his parents discouraged him, unsuccessfully, from running for president of the student council at his high school because they feared his becoming too Americanized. He credits youth clubs and other social organizations with upholding a distinct Ramallan identity long before the turbulent events of the 1960s forged a larger Palestinian one.

Andrew M Dabdoub
New Orleans, Louisiana.

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