When I call my family in Palestine, my heartbeat pauses as rings go unanswered—only to resume, relieved but shaken, once I hear their voices.
Nearly two weeks into the latest explosion of Israeli violence against occupied Palestinians, the world is finally beginning to understand what we have known for decades: Israel’s settler-colonial violence—the forced cleansing of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, the rampaging mobs in cities throughout the country, the bombs dropped on captive Gazans—has no place in the 21st century.
Palestinians have been saying this for years. But for us, as for our allies demanding freedom and justice for Palestinians, there are consequences for our speech. As soon as we speak out, we are immediately confronted by a repression machine restricting any criticism of Israel’s foundational and ongoing violence against Palestinians. We are then often punished.
Believe me, I know the consequences firsthand.
In June 2020, I became the subject of an international campaign to unseat me as Student Senate president of Florida State University. I had just made history as the first Palestinian, the first Arab, and the first Muslim to assume that office.
But, alongside other Palestinian student leaders, I was quickly drowned in a sea of animosity and intolerance toward Palestinians.
Pro-Israel students swiftly rummaged through my social media in a cyber-fishing expedition that is now understood as standard procedure when it comes to outspoken young Palestinians. Focusing on a photo of me in Palestine next to a statue of Nelson Mandela, students called my presidency into question because I cursed the Israeli military occupation oppressing my family and that I had lived under.
A campaign to unseat me erupted—with the help of petitions and an Israeli-government-funded app that, much like a video game, rewarded users for making complaints about me to my school. The embedded argument was that Palestinians like me who share experiences of Israeli oppression—like military occupation, apartheid, and inequality under the law—do so out of anti-Jewish and violent intent.
Not much later, my inboxes were filled with racist slurs based on this distortion of Palestinians and their allies. I received messages calling me “dirty ass towelhead” and “monkey ass piece of Arab shit.” I was told I should be castrated immediately and deported to Gaza. I was told that “Muzzlits” like me should be hunted down and killed.
My student body received enormous pressure too, with elected officials in Florida jumping into the mix. Legislators threatened to cut funding to my school. Cities adopted resolutions rebuking me, and the head of the state’s Covid-19 management department demanded my removal while Covid-19 deaths soared in Florida.
Given the scale of the response, the message was clear: Palestinians who challenge our oppression or even speak about violence committed against us and our families will themselves be painted as bullies—just as Palestinians resisting the current round of callous bombardment and dispossession are painted as aggressors.
My university knew all of this. It knew about threats to my safety and the fact that I couldn’t focus on school while trying to weather the storm.
But instead of supporting me, it bought into the racist charades and took action of its own to stigmatize Palestinians on campus by “recognizing” a distorted definition of anti-Semitism that mutes Palestinian experiences of oppression by conflating any and all criticism of Israel with hatred for Jewish people.
I am no stranger to violence. I’ve been shot at, tear-gassed, and stripped down by the Israeli military as a child in Palestine during the Second Intifada. But when I arrived in this country, anti-Palestinian bigotry did not stop at the US border. Instead, it took a new shape in the States, following me if I intended to speak, share, react to, or otherwise own my experiences as a Palestinian.
Like so many other students of color advocating for the rights of marginalized people, I was painted as a disruptor for speaking truthfully about Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.
What happened to me is only a drop in an ocean of ongoing efforts to silence and punish outspoken Palestinians, as well as allies, who criticize Israel. Over 33 states have passed laws targeting solidarity with Palestinian rights, including laws that attempt to redefine anti-Semitism as a way of policing what Palestinians can and cannot say about Israel’s occupation and oppression. Some states have even passed measures to limit the First Amendment right to boycott businesses complicit in Israel apartheid.
At the same time, activists, particularly students like me, are falsely accused, investigated, cyber-bullied, fired, legally threatened, surveilled by law enforcement, and physically assaulted because they stand for Palestinian freedom.
That’s why I decided to file a civil rights complaint against my university for reinforcing anti-Palestinian harassment against me. With the help of Palestine Legal, which is dedicated to pushing back against repression of the Palestinian rights movement in the United States, I am calling on the federal government to investigate my school for encouraging harassment by Israel speech police, and to take measures to protect campus advocacy for Palestinian rights.
I shouldn’t have had to drown in racist messages from online trolls and elected state representatives while my school stood alongside bigots, even cheered because I said that Palestinians deserve equality, too.
I will not allow others to shove my experiences under the rug, subvert my intentions, or rewrite my story. These tactics used against me—to smear, discredit, and distort—can only go so far. The harassment that Palestinians face for daring to share their stories is a testament of the fear people have of our deeply moving power.
I am a Palestinian, we are a resilient people, and I will not allow the silencing of Palestinian voices to be the status quo any longer.
Discrimination at and by institutions has no place in the 21st century—from the United States to Palestine.