On Multifaith Solidarity and Movement Building Among Asian Americans and Palestinians

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

The proclamation of June 4 as Palestinian Cultural Day was initiated by the Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, California, in partnership with the Arab Community Cultural Center. This has been one component  of its active commitment to struggle for Palestinian human rights. This community has launched a series of research, education, and direct action projects, including a partnership with the West Bank village of Wadi Foquin and an oral history project with local Palestinian elders, in conjunction with Professor Rabab Abdulhadi and the Arab Muslim Ethnicities Diaspora (AMED) project at San Francisco State University.

Because of its ongoing relationships in the Palestinian community, Buena Vista United Methodist Church (BVUMC) approached Loubna Qutami, the executive director of the Arab Cultural and Community Center in San Francisco, with the idea of proposing the above proclamation and getting it passed by the Alameda County board of supervisors. Their collaboration was eventually successful. The first year, one member of the board of supervisors blocked the proclamation due to pressure from reactionary elements in the Jewish community, resulting in the first and only time the county had rejected a proclamation to honor one of the Bay Area’s immigrant communities. The proponents of the proclamation went through another round of conversations with county supervisors and received complete support the second time around.

At a luncheon to celebrate the passage of Palestinian Culture Day held at the church, Rev. Michael Yoshii, senior pastor of BVUMC, shared the remarkable history of the church, which shapes its unique perspective in support of Palestinian human rights. The church is well known as one of the outstanding social justice solidarity communities in the area with a wide range of concerns. Part of the philosophy of the church’s activism is an understanding that the current debate about Israel-Palestine (as in all issues of human rights) must be framed by the personal experiences of people most vulnerable to the oppression and violence. The BVUMC community understands this need due to its history.

Reverend Yoshii told the story of the church’s place in the history of Japanese American in the United States. In 1924, Congress passed the Anti-Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, which barred immigration from Japan and other Asian countries because of racist backlash against these communities. Originally founded as a mission church to the Japanese community in 1898, the current church building on Buena Vista Avenue was built in 1926 as a way of strengthening the community for those families choosing to establish roots in this country, even in a highly segregated time. Another shameful part of American history unfolded during World War Two. Executive Order 9066, issued February 19, 1942, mandated detention camps for Japanese Americans, and 120,000 people were removed from their homes and communities and relocated to ten camps across the country. The church on Alameda Boulevard stood empty four years, serving as a space to store the belongings of an entire community.

The emotional trauma generated by that episode was still felt by the community for years. In 2000, the church was completing its 100th anniversary renovation project, and decided not to sand the wooden floor in the social hall. Instead, they chose to leave the scratches visible as a witness to the wounds and hardships faced by the community.

The Japanese-American community proactively sought redress for their injustice through the Redress and Reparations Campaign in the 1980s. In 1981, a Congressional Commission heard the stories of Japanese Americans in a variety of cities across the country. These stories were the first time in 40 years that members of the Japanese American community shared their truth with the American public. An official apology from the U.S. government and checks of $20,000 were issued to each surviving internee through the Civil Liberties Act passed on August 10, 1988.

As part of the apology three reasons were sited as the cause of the roundup and imprisonment of 120,000 people, two-thirds of whom were citizens of the United States, and one-third unnaturalized immigrants. Rev. Yoshii reiterated the reasons that led to the roundup and persecution of U.S. citizens during war time as a call to all of us to be aware of the social conditions in our current national environment that are similar to those that produced Executive Order 9066:

  1. War hysteria produced a collective mentality that made it acceptable to deny civil liberties to a wide section of society.
  2. A lack of political leadership allowed extremist policies to be implemented.
  3. Pre-existing racial prejudices which enabled mass support from the public who did not question the injustice of the roundups due to racist attitudes towards the Japanese.

Loubna Qutami spoke on a parallel track. She described how the institutionalizing of racist practices have become national policy as part of the neverending, so-called “War on Terror.” Institutionalizing racist policies is deadly for those who are most vulnerable to the impact of these policies. In 2008, rendition began with the Patriot Act which limits freedom of speech, has a policy of informants, often targets the mentally ill, and subjects U.S. citizens to military detention due to new definitions of military law, security, and terrorism. Are we watching a pattern repeat itself with Muslim Americans?

The process of profound changes in laws impacting the public connects directly to Palestine where two separate systems of laws were created and two sets of legal identities were initiated. Citizenship is given on the basis of Jewish affiliation by birth or conversion. Palestinian Arabs, on the other hand, are ruled by Israeli military courts, and have little or no access to any of the legal guarantees or rights enjoyed by Israeli citizens.

Both the Palestinian-American community and the Asian-American community share a capacity for resilience and a commitment to keep moving forward born of their struggle for justice. Another way to describe this quality is sumud, or steadfastness to one’s cultural and physical survival. That is why storytelling is part of BVUMC and Arab Cultural Center’s collaboration and the day’s celebration.

Qutami mentioned another element critical to a positive solidarity partnership: “There is no pressure to reduce our narratives from our allies. In other words, people are free to speak the truth of their experience without being asked to alter it for the sake of another community’s political or cultural goals.”

“There are natural partnerships,” said Qutami, “that we can build upon: resisting racial profiling, resisting mass incarceration and detention, empowering our community voices.

Several Palestinian Americans were invited to share their story. People’s reflections included:

  • the need to create more cultural programing opportunities for youth
  • the need to organize in order “to protect our liberties, and not be passive about our future.”
  • the desire to bring public awareness to the fact that, “somehow it is acceptable to insult arabs, muslims in public spaces…we should challenge this!”
  • the mourning of a sister who died during the First Intifada and the need to “remain steadfast, sumud, to the freedom struggle for the homeland.”
  • the desire to share something with ” my grandchildren before I move on.”
  • thanksgiving for the oral history project because it became “a road map for finding my voice. I want to make up for all the years my voice was silenced,  that’s what sharing stories as part of the storytelling project has done to me.”

The events leading to Palestinian Cultural Day are an important lesson of the positive and empowering results that occur when communities work together to support each other in our collective effort to maintain our civil liberties and to safeguard the beauty of our cultural resources and traditions for the benefit of future generations.

PALESTINIAN CULTURAL DAY
proclaimed in Alameda County, June 4, 2013

Whereas, Palestinians trace their roots back to the historic land of Palestine and profess many faiths; and

Whereas, Palestinian culture is presented through books, poetry, music, dance, oral history, folktales, proverbs, and handicrafts made with cross-stitch embroidery patterns that often display ethnic or regional identity and honor a rich cultural legacy from centuries past that are important symbols of Palestinian culture; and

Whereas, Palestinians have embraced for over 2,000 years core values such as love of family, commitment to education, hospitality, and reverence for land, community empowerment, strong sense of justice and they now share these values with the residents of Alameda County; and

Whereas, Palestinian residents of Alameda County now number approximately 20,000 and continue to make major contributions to the County in the fields of arts and culture, community organizing, student activism, law and medicine, and we are valued members of the community as small business owners; and

Whereas, Palestinians living in Alameda County will hold the second annual Palestinian Cultural Day that honors the local Palestinian community and its contributions to the County’s civic life as well as the historical and cultural contributions of Palestinians throughout the world, and, now therefore be it

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT PROCLAIMED that this Board of Supervisors, County of Alameda, State of California does hereby proclaim JUNE 4, 2013 as “Palestinian Cultural Day”  and recognizes the contributions of the local Palestinian population to Alameda County residents and communities.

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