I was supposed to go to Palestine last month.
I spent the past four years doing full time organizing in support of the Palestinian struggle and it was pretty exciting thinking about actually visiting a land I have dedicated so much time talking about while meeting with people who have had so much impact on my life.
What had me looking forward to this trip even more was that I would be going as part of a delegation of indigenous and people of color activists during a time of reinvigoration of efforts to build solidarity across struggles, especially Black-Palestinian solidarity.
I went on this trip expecting to be interrogated at the border between Jordan and Palestine by the Israeli regime. I am visibly Muslim — I wear a headscarf — and my parents were born in Syria.
Israel ethnically and religiously profiles visitors so often that the State Department’s travel advisory for Israel reads: “Some U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim heritage not on the Palestinian Population Registry or otherwise prohibited from entering Israel have experienced significant difficulties and unequal and hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints.”
I also figured there was a high chance they would figure out that I was active in Palestine solidarity work, something Israel has been cracking down on lately.
And as I expected, I ended up having to go through a two hour interrogation about why I was visiting, whom I was planning on meeting, and where exactly I was going.
They Googled me at some point, which then meant plenty of questions were aimed at trying to get me to reveal information about the different organizing work I do and the groups I am involved with. They even took down the names and ages of my parents and siblings and tried to get me to share details about my family in Syria.
Throughout the interrogation, the Islamophobia that is part and parcel of Israeli policies came through. When I was trying to explain that I wanted to visit Jerusalem because it is a holy site for Muslims, the interrogator responded I should go to Saudi Arabia instead. I was mocked as she proclaimed while gesturing about the way I was dressed — and why someone like me would want to go to the beaches of Tel Aviv.
And the part that really scared me — after taking me to the main waiting hall and going through my purse and backpack in front of people and demanding access to my electronics, she began yelling that I was a terrorist coming to do bombings and she would be reporting me to the U.S. government.
After five hours of waiting, I was informed that I had been denied entry and banned for five years for being a “security threat.”
Four other members of the delegation who had been traveling through Ben Gurion airport were also denied and deported back to the United States after facing much harsher treatment than myself, including being handcuffed and detained in dirty cells.
Calls to the U.S. Consulate’s Citizen Services resulted in no assistance for any of us and some officials even made comments indicating they had no power over the treatment of U.S. citizens, despite visa agreements between the two countries.
It is no coincidence that all of us denied either identify as Muslim or have Muslim names or “look” Muslim. It was very clear we were all profiled as Muslim and in my case, accused of being a security threat based on the racism and Islamophobia that is part and parcel of Israel.
What infuriated me even more after the heartbreak of not being allowed to visit Palestine was finding out just a day later that while my colleagues and I were put through this ordeal, the latest cohort of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) was taking place.
This initiative takes Muslim American chaplains, journalists, academics, and cultural workers to Israel to shape their understanding of Zionism and Israel in order that they return to their communities and influence their views and push back against support for Palestinian rights.
These Muslim leaders were not traveling to be in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice, and equality but rather to connect with Israeli institutions that are directly involved in perpetuating war crimes against Palestinians or whitewashing them.
While our delegation was visiting to strengthen ties between oppressed people resisting and rising up, these Muslim leaders were on a trip funded by an institution and started by individuals involved in organizing against Palestinian rights, including efforts to combat the call for BDS campaigns (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) to force Israel to comply with international law and respect human rights.
MLI participants have given a wide range of reasons for the need for these trips — from “this is an opportunity for Muslim Americans” to “dialogue with Jews“ to “we need to try new ways to solve the issue of Palestine“ to “this is done to help the fight against Islamophobia.”
Each of these reasons makes little sense. When people in the United States want to dialogue with Muslims, they look locally, not go to Saudi Arabia. Going to Israel as an attempt to connect with Jewish Americans also conflates Judaism, Zionism, and Israel, which is problematic and can even be anti-Semitic.
And there are plenty of Jewish Americans working in support of Palestinian rights that Muslim Americans can connect with instead. As for solving the “conflict,” Palestinians know far better than anyone else how their liberation will be won and definitely are not in need of non Palestinians opining about their struggle, especially those who have never done any actual organizing for Palestine.
And pretending that this is some sort of religious conflict between Muslims and Jews, which disregards Palestinian Christians, is faithwashing the realities of military occupation and apartheid that are the real problem.
Most shamefully, what my experience highlighted for me was how ridiculous the claim is that efforts like MLI are going to help protect Muslims against Islamophobia.
While our delegation was visiting to strengthen ties between oppressed people resisting and rising up, these Muslim leaders were on a trip funded by an institution and started by individuals involved in organizing against Palestinian rights, including efforts to combat the call for BDS campaigns.
Israel and its Zionist supporters constantly uses Islamophobia to justify its war crimes against Palestinians (this use of Islamophobia to dehumanize Muslims and justify state violence is one of the shared values it has with the United States).
Groups dedicated to denying Palestinian rights deliberately fuel fear of Muslims and Arabs to push their agenda, something that especially became obvious with the launch of the War on Terror. Many groups who fund Israeli war crimes such as the building of illegal settlements on stolen Palestinian land also bankroll the Islamophobia industry here in the United States.
To pretend that something that is so essential to how Israel is able to continue its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians can be mitigated by Muslim Americans going there and engaging with Zionist institutions is problematic and makes every person who is part of these cohorts complicit in Israel’s faithwashing efforts to deflect attention from its war crimes.
Nothing that I, nor the others denied entry went through compares to the day-to-day experience of Palestinians facing Israel’s oppressive policies — from those living under military occupation to those facing apartheid policies to the refugees denied the right to return to their land.
But this experience did remind me of how essential it was that all of us in the United States must work to end our complicity in this oppression and be in solidarity with Palestinians.
And just as the Jewish American community is having to come to terms with certain of its institutions continuing to deny Palestinian rights while claiming to support racial justice, Muslim Americans too will have to decide whether they will allow their leaders to forsake Palestinians and the struggle for justice in order to be accepted as “good” Muslims.
Ramah Kudaimi is the Director of Grassroots Organizing at the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. She serves on the board of the Washington Peace Center and is a member of the Muslim American Women’s Policy Forum.