On May 10, a historic event unfolded in the halls of power in Washington. Members of the United States Congress, their staff, and more than a hundred activists, advocates, and survivors huddled into a Senate committee room to commemorate the 75th anniversary of what we, Palestinians, call the “Nakba” (catastrophe) – the violent expulsion by Zionist militias of approximately three-quarters of the Palestinian population from its homeland.
The event, “Nakba 75 and the Palestinian People”, was the first of its kind to be hosted in Congress. It was a success, not only because it gave a voice to Palestinians at the heart of American imperial power, but also because it resisted efforts to be shut down.
The day before the event was scheduled to take place, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy tried to block it. He revoked our reservation for the Congressional Auditorium in the US Capitol Visitor Center, falsely accusing us, the organisers, of “traffic[ing] in antisemitic tropes about Israel”.
But McCarthy failed to stop us. Senator Bernie Sanders stepped in and welcomed the event to the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Senate Committee room, which is under his jurisdiction.
As a Palestinian American and one of the lead organisers, this experience was deeply personal and profoundly significant. It reminded me of all the challenges that I – and many Palestinian Americans like me – have suffered in trying to have our voices heard. It serves as proof that change in the US is happening.
Silencing Palestine in Congress
Historically, the American public has not given much thought to Palestine. It has generally embraced the Zionist narrative that our homeland was an “empty land” when Jewish people, Europe’s canonical victims, came to settle it, fleeing violence. A majority of Americans has always sympathised with the Israelis over the Palestinians, who have often been seen as “violent orientals”.
This public support has been reflected in Congress and in the White House, with the US becoming Israel’s biggest supporter and sponsor. To date, Washington has provided Tel Aviv with some $158bn in aid, making it the biggest recipient of US assistance.
State legislatures and the US Congress have regularly passed pro-Israel resolutions and legislation. Dozens of states have approved legal measures to counter the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which works to pressure Israel into complying with international law.
Meanwhile, successive US governments have pressed Arab states to normalise relations with Israel, most recently through the so-called Abraham Accords.
Israel has a powerful lobby in the US. According to a recent report, the 10 biggest Zionist groups in the US collectively hold more than $500m in assets; in 2022 alone, they spent $70m to promote unconditional support for Israel in Congress.
There are, of course, members of Congress who have spoken up for Palestinian rights. For example, in 2017, Congresswoman Betty McCollum of Minnesota introduced the groundbreaking legislation known as the “Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act”.
Senator Sanders of Vermont has also been a notable advocate for Palestinian rights. He has called for more accountability for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians during his presidential campaigns and has openly criticised Israeli settlement expansion.
But McCollum and Sanders have been in the minority. This imbalance in representation has made it extremely difficult for advocates for Palestinian rights to work within the halls of power in Congress and Washington as a whole, trying to raise awareness, engage in meaningful discussions, and promote legislation supporting the Palestinian cause.
Change is coming
I faced this challenging environment when I first started getting involved in pro-Palestinian activism in my junior year of high school. Despite all the talk about the importance of human rights and freedom in academic and political circles, the silence surrounding Palestinian rights left me feeling marginalised.
As a Palestinian American, I yearned for the recognition of my heritage, the acknowledgement of the struggles faced by my community, and the pursuit of justice for Palestine.
I started working for the state legislature in Colorado in my final year of college. There, too, the Palestinian struggle was completely ignored. It was really disheartening but expected.
Palestine was a curse word in US politics until Representative Tlaib was elected in 2018. Being the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress, she unlocked doors that had been bolted shut for pro-Palestinian advocates for a long time.
Things started to change for me personally when Representative Iman Jodeh, the first Palestinian-American Muslim woman elected into Colorado’s state legislature, took office three years later, in January 2021. Seeing her commitment to amplifying the voices of all marginalised communities, I felt change was possible.
Several months later, tensions escalated in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem subjected to Israel’s vicious ethnic cleansing of Palestinians through forced eviction. For the first time, two Palestinians, Muna and Mohammed el-Kurd, broke through to the US mainstream and challenged the Israeli narrative. The US media gave them some space to speak and finally paid attention to Israel’s massacres of Palestinians in Gaza.
The global outrage over Israel’s crimes in the spring and summer of 2021 created a serious shift in the American public’s zeitgeist.
The change in attitudes is particularly apparent among supporters of the Democratic Party. In a 2023 Gallup poll, 49 percent of Democrats said they sympathised more with the Palestinians than with the Israelis, compared with 38 percent a year earlier.
The shift has encouraged Palestinians to press on with their efforts to lobby for their cause in the halls of power. We already seeing the results of it in our own advocacy at Americans for Justice in Palestine Action (AJP Action).
In 2022, AJP Action had a record-breaking 803 American voters register with our programme to advocate for Palestinian rights in Congress; they met with more than 130 congressional offices.
Last year, HR2590, a bill that would restrict foreign aid from Israel, which AJP Action supports and lobbies for, reached 32 cosponsors, up from 13 when it was first introduced in 2021 – an unthinkable number only a few years ago.
These successes make me all the more confident in my work with members of Congress, trying to shift entrenched US politics on Israel-Palestine and promote legislation supporting Palestinian rights.
Advocating for Palestine is still an uphill battle in Congress but it is no longer an impossible one.
And our event on May 10 demonstrated that. For the first time, in the halls of Congress, survivors of the Nakba were able to recount their traumatic memories of the violence and pain they suffered and be heard; for the first time, Mahmoud Darwish’s emblematic poem “On This Land”, about Palestinians’ love for their land, was recited.
The commemoration of the Nakba on Capitol Hill was a milestone in our ongoing struggle for recognition and justice. Despite efforts to silence us, we raised our voices and reached places far beyond what our detractors expected.
The Nakba did not end in 1948. It is still going on and Palestinians continue to be dispossessed, ethnically cleansed and killed. But we have demonstrated that there is a force ready to respond to Israel’s atrocities, even in the halls of Capitol Hill.
This is the power of grassroots organising. This is the importance of representation. This is the resilience of the Palestinian-American community.
This event would not have been possible without the tireless work of the advocates of Palestinian rights that came before me. We will carry its spirit with us, as we continue to fight for a future where the Palestinians are no longer marginalised or forgotten but recognised, respected, and free. The road ahead may be challenging, but with determination, solidarity, and the support of our allies, we believe in a brighter tomorrow for Palestine.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.