The conference was initially conceived by Sa’ed Atshan, who has since graduated from Swarthmore College to pursue a graduate degree at Harvard University. As the recipient of a Lang Opportunity Grant at Swarthmore, Atshan managed to secure a visit by Columbia University professor Joseph Massad. The latter succeeded in engaging and challenging the summit participants regarding the future of Palestinian activism as well as advocacy. The grant also allowed for travel costs to be covered – thus, ensuring a certain regional and socio-economic diversity that served to strengthen the quality and breadth of the debate surrounding PSS’ aims and mission. Among the many represented universities were Yale, Berkeley, Swarthmore, Temple, Stanford, Georgetown, George Washington University, Marquette, City University of New York, the University of Michigan, and McGill University in Montreal (Canada).
The core of the summit was dedicated to crafting a mission statement aimed at clearly articulating a collective assertion of the rights and responsibilities that emerge from a shared and active notion of Palestinian heritage and identity. Facilitated by the author of this article as well as by Noura Erakat – legal advocate for the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation – participants were given four driving questions, each of which related to a central issue facing Palestinians in exile.
In broad terms, these reflected conceptions of community and identity, representation, individual and collective rights as members of an exiled diaspora, and finally, the responsibilities entailed in such a consciousness and informed by the specific North American exilic context and circumstances. Discussed in small groups, these questions brought to the fore important, and for many, novel notions of what it means to identify with and engage in a diaspora body politic.
This exercise highlighted a key individual and collective tension facing our generation – one that is rooted in the global fragmentation of the Palestinian nation and the political realities that have engendered a stark division between Palestinians within the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, i.e. those Palestinians that have become the sole focus of international political and humanitarian attention since the beginning of the peace initiatives in the early 1990s, and those outside these areas. As is often overlooked, the latter, Palestinians in exile throughout the world, constitute the majority of the Palestinian people.
The Civitas Project report entitled Palestinians Register: Laying Foundations and Setting Directions - a landmark participatory project that places the voices, demands and recommendations of Palestinians throughout Al-Shatat, or the Palestinian dispersion, at the forefront of the Palestinian question - identifies this division as the outgrowth of a political process of exclusion, which has primarily come at the expense of the majority of Palestinians.
It states that, “This exclusion has denied Palestinians residing outside the West Bank and Gaza the most elementary democratic right to shape the key constitutional and the political institutions of the future state that belongs to them as much as those resident inside occupied Palestine.”1 Specifically for Palestinian students in Al-Shatat, this division has, in short, fermented a tension between, on the one hand, standing in solidarity with the Palestinians and, on the other, crucially recognizing one’s place within the Palestinian national arena and thus standing as a Palestinian with concomitant rights, obligations, and a duty to actively engage in the future of this dispersed community. Through this deliberative process, the summit sought to challenge the dominant conceptual hold of the former standpoint and begin a move toward a more inclusive understanding of diaspora political involvement.
Merging the findings and working statements of each group together, a final mission statement was formulated by consensus among the PSS participants. Each concept and term, as well as the implications they embodied, were discusssed in detail. Though it tested the patience of many, this collective participatory process enabled a remarkable grappling with the core issues of what it means to be a Palestinian, of belonging to an exiled national community, of benefiting from the privileges of a university education, and, in extension, what duties such an identity, educational opportunity, and political consciousness entail.
This process reflected a transformative conceptual and practical realization for many. Nadeem Muaddi, a current associate at the Washington, DC-based Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development,2 emphasized the implications of such a conceptual shift in a reflection he circulated shortly after the summit:
In the past, Palestinians in diaspora who stood in solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would state that they could not advocate for a solution to the conflict because it was not their place as non-residents to do so. Together, we called for the end of such nonsense. Recognizing that all Palestinians worldwide – whether in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, North America, or other – constitute a single nation, we cemented our right to involvement in deciding the future of our people.
Central to this argument, and present in the mission statement below, is the recognition of a need for and the desire toward integration in the Palestinian national debate. Palestinians in North America, especially students, embody an integral part of the Palestinian national community and, with their unique skills and experiences, have the responsibility to ensure that their voices are projected and heard across the Palestinian national spectrum. In this spirit, the mission statement should be understood as a simple, inclusive call for Palestinian students in North America – as one distinct component of a larger Palestinian diaspora body politic – to both assert their rights within this national framework and contribute to the formation of its present and future. The statement reads,
We are students in North America who actively identify as Palestinian because of a shared national, historical, and cultural experience, regardless of current citizenship, current location, religion, class, or gender. We strive to provide an institutional structure for participation in the greater Palestinian national movement for self-determination. As members of the Palestinian diaspora, we assert our right and responsibility to involvement in the determination of the future of Palestinian nationhood.
The significance of the PSS effort, in this short time period, should be appreciated in terms of how it has sought to redefine and thus reframe the political vision and possibilities for Palestinians of a new generation who live outside the territorial confines of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It encapsulates a recognition that Palestinians, globally, have a right and obligation to contribute to the national questions and debates that tie all Palestinians together, regardless of current residence and territorial presence.
Furthermore, this vision acknowledges that local considerations and needs, in contra-distinction to those of a national scope, differ across the communities in exile and in Palestine. As such, they can best be identified and addressed by those on the ground in each of these localities. For our generation, however, the political focus on the OPT has overshadowed and, in some cases, determined the national debate. It is crucial to understand that a marginalization of the exiled voices of the majority by an exclusive focus on the OPT serves to disenfranchise most members of the nation. Therefore, as students in North America, we must tackle our local needs within the North American Palestinian community, while simultaneously engaging with and contributing to the national effort.
In light of the Civitas project and its reception by international institutions involved in different aspects of the Palestinian question, the Palestinian Student Society emerges as a much needed project, which embodies the democratic and participatory principles that have long animated the Palestinian political struggle. For a generation, where these principles, practices, and institutional mechanisms for involvement have all but disappeared, the PSS represents a small, yet important, collective initiative aimed at re-integrating diaspora voices and recommendations within a larger, national Palestinian political vision.
A graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, DC, Maher Bitar is currently on a Marshall Scholarship at the University of Oxford, where he is reading for a Master of Science in Forced Migration at the Refugee Studies Centre.
1. Nabulsi, Karma. Palestinians Register: Laying Foundations and Setting Directions. Report of the Civitas Project. Nuffield College, University of Oxford, 2006, p. 8.
[Accessible Online at http://www.civitas-online.org]
2. The Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development [Accessible Online at: http://www.thejerusalemfund.org/index.php]