Back to overview

Palestinians in the United States

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 26.03.2008:

The Untold Success Story

By Hussein Ibish

The Palestinian-American community is a large, vibrant, and increasingly important component of American life; it constitutes a significant bridge between the Middle East and the United States. Palestinian Americans are among the most active Arab Americans and are deeply conscious of their heritage and their engagement with Palestine, the Palestinian people, and their national aspirations.

The precise size of the community is the subject of some speculation and debate since, like Arab Americans in general, Palestinians are simply classified as “white” in most U.S. Census Bureau statistics. In 2000, the Bureau attempted for the first time to measure the Arab-American and Palestinian presence through the “long form” used by a small minority of respondents, and concluded from this very limited data that there were 72,112 Palestinian Americans living in the United States. Other estimates differ, with the Arab American Institute Foundation counting 252,000 and the Palestinian American Council estimating 179,000.

As with many other Arab Americans, Palestinian immigration to the United States began in earnest at the end of the 19th century. Arab immigrants were a significant part of The Great Migration, the period in U.S. history between 1880 and 1924, when more than 20 million immigrants entered the country. Most of these immigrants originated in southern and eastern Europe, but more than 95,000 Arabs came from present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine.

By 1924, there were approximately 200,000 Arab Americans living in the United States, many of them with origins in Palestine. They settled all over the country, often first peddling wares door-to-door before opening shops and businesses. They established companies, founded newspapers, created social clubs, and assimilated into American life while preserving aspects of Arab and Palestinian culture. Many proudly served the United States in the armed forces during the first and second world wars and in subsequent conflicts.

A second wave of Palestinian immigration came after 1967, when many Palestinians sought opportunity in the United States as well as refuge from war, oppression, exile, and dispossession in the Middle East.

Mohammed Issa Abu Al-Hawa was one of the first Palestinian, Arab, Muslim immigrants to the United States. In 1902, 15-year-old Mohammed left his hometown, Tur, on the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem. His long, detoured journey to America took him from Tur to Jaffa to Port Said in Egypt, then to Singapore, Bombay, and Southampton, England. Finally, on November 7, 1904, Mohammed reached New York City and, at Ellis Island, entered the United States, renaming himself A. Joseph Howar.

Like many other Arab immigrants, Howar began to work as a salesman and then opened a successful clothing store. He soon found his way into what would become his life’s work – the building trade in and around Washington, D.C.

Over many decades, Howar constructed some of the most recognizable structures in our nation’s capital, especially many well-known apartment buildings, including the first high-rise apartment house in Virginia. But the project that left perhaps the most lasting impact on the city was the construction of the Islamic Center mosque on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. In 1943, along with the ambassador of Egypt, Howar helped found and provide early funding to a committee to build a major mosque in the U.S. capital. In 1948, Howar, placing a silver dollar on the ground for luck, began work at the site. The mosque was completed in 1954 and dedicated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 28, 1957.

In spite of his many achievements in the new world and his extremely effective assimilation into the business and social life of Washington, Howar never forgot his homeland, Palestine, and provided a mosque, a school, and a cemetery for his native town, Tur.

In 1911, another early Palestinian immigrant to the United States, Wadie Ibrahim, made his way from Haifa to Port Said, to Liverpool in northern England, and from there to New York City. After working as a salesman and taking classes at Western Reserve University, Wadie signed up for the American Expeditionary Forces that entered World War I and, along with hundreds of thousands of other American so-called “doughboys,” served in France under General Pershing.

After the war, Wadie returned to Cleveland, Ohio, and went into business with his older brother, Assad – also known as “Al.” Though fiercely proud of his World War I service and his U.S. citizenship, Wadie, now renamed William A. Said, returned to Palestine and married. There, along with his older cousin, Boulos Said, he established the Palestine Educational Company and, later, the Standard Stationary Company. Wadie managed the several branches in Egypt.

The Saids, though Palestinians in every respect, saw themselves and lived as the family of an American businessman in Egypt. However, Wadie and his wife made sure that all their children were born in Jerusalem. One of these children, young Edward, would grow into one of the most prominent and influential figures in the Palestinian-American community. After schooling in Cairo and Jerusalem, the Saids sent Edward on a journey of American education, beginning at Northfield Mount Hermon prep school in Massachusetts and then on to Princeton and Harvard.

Following his appointment as professor at Columbia University, Edward Said took his place among the most influential literary theorists and critics in the world and became a major figure in the humanities. He was a passionate supporter of Palestinian human and national rights and a long-serving member of the Palestinian National Council. When he passed away in September 2003, he was celebrated as one of the leading intellectuals of his time, a founding figure in postcolonial theory, and one of the most important figures in introducing and explicating the Palestinian national narrative and experience to Western audiences.

As these examples suggest, the Palestinian-American story contains a much-neglected story of success and contribution that stands in contrast to the more familiar narrative of dispossession, exile, and occupation that dominates both the generalized and particular self-perception of the Palestinian story. Like Prof. Edward Said, there have been countless Palestinian Americans who have made major contributions to American life in fields as diverse as the arts and sciences, academia, business, politics, and sports.

One of the most prominent Palestinian-American families hails from New Hampshire and has made a lasting mark in American political life through leadership in the Republican Party. John H. Sununu was born in Havana, Cuba, to Palestinian parents who immigrated to the United States. After a successful career as an engineer in business and academia, he served three consecutive terms as governor of New Hampshire. He then served as the first White House Chief of Staff for President George H. W. Bush, serving from 1989 to 1991, which is probably the most prominent political position yet achieved by a Palestinian American. He went on to co-host CNN’s nightly Crossfire debate programme from March 1992 until February 1998.

His son, John E. Sununu, is currently a Republican senator from New Hampshire who previously spent three terms in the House of Representatives. He represents the second generation of Sununus prominent in American political life. Both are actively engaged with the Palestinian-American community and proud of their heritage.

In addition to Prof. Said, a number of Palestinian-American academics have made significant contributions to scholarship in the United States. Among the most prominent of these in the sciences is Mujid Kazimi, who is TEPCO Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Director of the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems (CANES) at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Others have taken a lead in developing the understanding of the Palestinian experience and relations between Palestinians and other Arabs and the West. The celebrated sociologist Ibrahim Abu Lughod devoted most of his professional life to this cause and was described by Prof. Said as “Palestine’s foremost academic and intellectual,” though he lived and taught in the United States. He was among the leading figures during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s and 1980s who were engaged in developing and defining an Arab-American identity that would lead to the formation of a distinct political interest group within American society.

Two prominent Palestinian-American historians, Walid Khalidi and Rashid Khalidi, have pioneered the work of documenting contemporary Palestinian history and national identity. Among his many powerful works, Walid Khalidi’s two books, Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876-1948 (Institute for Palestine Studies, 1984) and All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992) are two of the most invaluable studies ever published to reinforce the details of the society destroyed in the process of the creation of Israel. Rashid Khalidi’s Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 1997) is perhaps the most detailed study of the development of Palestinian political consciousness; and his more recent work The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (Beacon Press, 2006) unsentimentally chronicles the failures of Palestinian leadership in the thus-far frustrated effort to establish an independent Palestinian state.

Other noted Palestinian Americans include the late political scientist Hisham Sharabi, the celebrated poet Naomi Shihab Nye, basketball star Rony Seikaly, and the ‘oud and violin virtuoso and composer Simon Shaheen.

Palestinian Americans such as Abu Lughod, Said, and others were instrumental in the establishment and development of the first Arab-American political organisations such as the Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG) and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). Over time, however, along with active participation in the broader Arab-American community, Palestinian Americans have been increasingly developing their own distinct organisations, both social and political.

Numerous social organisations have emerged in the Palestinian-American community based on town and village of origin that bring people of common ancestry throughout the country together, mainly for social, cultural, and philanthropic purposes. The largest of these, the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine, is also one of the biggest Arab-American organisations of any kind. Among the most noteworthy Palestinian-American philanthropic organisations is the United Palestinian Appeal, founded in 1978, which has raised and distributed millions of dollars in charitable aid in Palestine, and which works closely with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in humanitarian projects to benefit the Palestinian people.

Several distinctly Palestinian-American political organisations have emerged in recent decades, including the Palestinian American Congress among others. In 2003 the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) was formed to give a voice to those Palestinian Americans who wished to speak for themselves and express their support for an end to the conflict in the Middle East based on two states – Israel and Palestine – living side by side in peace.

The organisation’s approach represents a paradigm shift in advocacy for Palestine in the United States: it fully embraces its American identity, and its mission is to advocate for the establishment of a Palestinian state by using the argument that it would be in the United States’ national interest rather than using the traditional appeal to justice, human rights, and international law.

ATFP seeks to engage the policy conversation in Washington as it actually exists and to develop close ties to both U.S. and Palestinian national leadership. The Task Force’s headway in achieving this aim was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated at its first annual gala in 2006, when the keynote speaker, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told the audience, “there could be no greater legacy for America than to help to bring into being a Palestinian state.”

The Task Force has also sought to redefine the perception of Palestinians and Palestinian Americans in Washington and the rest of the country by celebrating the contributions of Palestinians in the United States and their successes and achievements. It is currently working on developing a national coalition to support the two-state solution to the conflict, which seeks to bring together Arab, Jewish, and other American organisations which, for whatever reason, support an end to the occupation and a life of peace and security for those who live side by side in Palestine and Israel.

Another recent development in the United States has been the emergence, mainly on university campuses, of a perspective that opposes Palestinian statehood and supports instead a single state to replace both Israel and Palestine. Leading voices in this camp include Prof. Joseph Massad, of Columbia University, Ali Abunimah, and other contributors to his Electronic Intifada website. Recent years have witnessed increasingly acrimonious disputes between one-state and two-state advocates within the Palestinian-American community.

Whereas some see these and other divisions as disturbing, others argue that they reflect a healthy and dynamic community that has long-since moved beyond simplistic forms of solidarity and unity for unity’s sake, and is capable of reflecting a wide diversity of views, perspectives and experiences.

With the rise of Arab-American comedians in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, hip, wry, and incisive performers such as Maysoon Zayid, Dean Obeidallah, and Aaron Kader have pioneered yet another positive and engaging role for young Palestinian Americans and helped their fellow citizens deal with the anxieties and concerns of the era of the “war on terror.” Through this new form of engagement with American popular culture in comedy, music, and other arts, Palestinian Americans are more engaged than ever and are proactively building a distinctive, non-derivative identity that moves beyond traditions, slogans, and stereotypes.

The Palestinian-American future would appear to be bright and on a definite upswing, with the increasing number of prominent Palestinians in various aspects of American life who are transforming Palestinian identity, once associated simply with images of downtrodden refugees and political radicalism, into one that is respectable and respected by most other Americans.

Hussein Ibish is senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and executive director of the Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation for Arab-American Leadership. From 1998 to 2004, he was communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the largest Arab-American membership organisation. He has written numerous books, chapters, and articles and made over 5,000 radio and TV appearances.

This Week in Palestine

March 2008

There are no comments. Add one!