The Nakba Demands Justice

This May 15th, Palestinians commemorated seventy-one years of diaspora due to the founding of the state of Israel. Over 400 villages, towns and urban centers of Mandate Palestine were ethnically cleansed of their inhabitants. In that fateful May of 1948, some 750,000 millennium-old dwellers of the Holy Land, both Muslim and Christian, were expelled from their homes, never to return. Many of those hapless families, men, women, children and the elderly, marched for days to escape the death and destruction of the invading Zionist militias. This catastrophic loss of their homeland is what the Palestinians call the Nakba. The Nakba demands justice.

Reconciling the Nakba with my identity as an American hearkens back to my teenage years in high school in 1982. That summer, I watched the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the ensuing Sabra and Shatila massacre on television. The gruesome killings of nearly 3,000 refugees were part and parcel of the Nakba. In identity politics, it was the Palestinians’ 9/11. For me, it was a crash course in the first amendment.

In the spur of the moment, I donned a t-shirt that said "Long Live Palestine" on the front and "P.L.O." on the back. It didn’t matter at the time that I had very little knowledge of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Yasser Arafat’s quest for a Palestinian state. At school though, it made at least one Jewish teacher very angry. This exercise in freedom of expression resulted in another teacher confidentially introducing me to the A.C.L.U. I won that battle with a concession letter from the Chicago Board of Education acknowledging that I had a first amendment right to display my shirt at school.

I adopted America as my home. Was my new home ready to embrace the Palestinian cause for self-determination, and would it be a place where justice overrides racial considerations, religious rigidity, or a bigoted expression of American exceptionalism?

The horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11 pivoted the country and my legal career. As an immigration attorney navigating clients through the complicated web of immigration laws sorely in need of reform, I found myself defending the rights of accused terrorists in high profile cases. Through an intimate exposure to the criminal justice system, and in most cases its utter failure and disparity in policing, prosecution, and sentencing, I began to identify with John Adams, our second president.

As a lawyer in the colonies dedicated to justice for all, Adams defended the British soldiers accused of massacring American colonists in Boston in 1770. I discovered that if we were going to preserve the rights enshrined in the constitution, every accused is entitled to legal representation to ensure the system works justly and properly against government abuse. However, when it came to Palestine, I saw that the spirit of justice was lacking.

Why were elected officials, many progressive Jews and "prosperity gospel" Christians turning a blind eye to the well documented plight of the Palestinians? Well over a decade into the 1993 Oslo Accords, it became clear that the negotiations were yielding diminishing returns. Negotiators talked, but Israel’s settlements expanded. The dispossession of Palestinians from their homes and lands continued.

It has taken decades, but I now witness grassroots efforts of Americans coming together standing for justice. From trial balloons like President Carter’s book, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid," to Representative Ilhan Omar questioning blind congressional support of Israel’s illegal occupation, American public opinion has been incrementally shifting towards a recognition of Palestinian rights.

A growing number of evangelicals have shown willingness to be educated on the Palestinian narrative. Jewish-Americans with a comprehensive sense of tikkun olam organize in support of Palestinians and make the sound argument that criticism of Israel and its policies do not equate to anti-Semitism. Even law makers are now willing to openly support Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) despite the lopsided influence of the Israel lobby. Living in America and experiencing individual freedoms, as constricted as they have become, has empowered me to overcome the victimization mindset of the Nakba. So much so that I was willing to sit down face to face with the very people who were responsible for the Nakba.

In the mid 2000’s, as an activist engaged with key players in the conflict, I attended a series of confidential Swiss-sponsored meetings between Palestinians and Israelis. In participating in trust-building sessions and reverse role playing workshops, I recognized that culturally we had a lot in common. I heard the narratives of former and current Knesset members representing the spectrum of political parties, retired generals, religious figures, a former head of Mossad, past Israeli negotiators and representatives of the settler movement. Their personal stories of Zion crystallized my just struggle for Palestine. The anti-Semitism of Europe could not be solved by committing another wrong-that of dispossessing the Palestinians of their homeland.

Honoring the Nakba is honoring justice. The Nakba is the struggle for a nation state, the need to live in dignity, the right to be free of occupation and live in peace. It commemorates hope, and the fight for freedom and justice; that is the American way.

Ashraf W. Nubani, a Palestinian-American Muslim community leader, is a Virginia-based immigration attorney and a sermon giver at mosques in the Washington DC metro area.