When Palestinians are finally celebrated for their contributions in a major American city and treated like any other community — that’s evidence of a brewing revolution. And it happened in Philadelphia on Monday.
As an Israeli who has written publicly about Israel and Palestine, I regularly receive serious flak on social media and via email for speaking up for Palestinian human rights. During the Gaza war last May, my direct message inbox on Twitter was full of wishes that a rocket would hit my family’s home in Tel Aviv.
So when I heard that Jim Kenney, the mayor of the sixth largest city in the United States, was delivering a formal proclamation in solidarity with Palestinians on Monday, I was surprised that he was willing to jump head first into controversy.
But the event came and went quietly— potentially signaling an important change in U.S. politics.
Cookies and community
I headed to the Palestinian Day of Solidarity event on Monday outside of the Municipal Service Building across from City Hall to see how things would play out. The Plaza was decorated with a garland of little Palestinian flags. A few dozen people in the crowd waved their own Palestinian flags and wore the traditional white and black keffiyeh. Mayor Kenney offered short remarks noting that Palestinian residents contribute greatly to Philadelphia’s culture and community. He shouted out the Palestinian-owned businesses including Sunshine Food Market in West Philadelphia, prompting much applause from a crowd of about 50 people.
Amy Eusebio, the director of the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, offered the official proclamation declaring November 29 the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, followed by short speeches from Council members Kendra Brooks, Jamie Gauthier, and Maria Quinoñes Sanchez, State Representative Danilo Burgos, and State Senator Nikil Saval.
Burgos opened his remarks stating his district has the largest Palestinian constituency in Philadelphia. Quiñones-Sánchez corrected him that her council district is the home to even more Palestinians.
Even as someone who follows these things closely, I have to admit: Elected officials arguing over the bragging rights of who represents more Palestinians wasn’t on my 2021 bingo card.
After Palestinian community leaders and a rabbi offered remarks, the formal event ended and the plaza filled with Palestinian music as trays of maamouls (a traditional Palestinian cookie filled with dates) were served.
“The point of this event is just to allow a community to flourish,” event emcee Jude Hussein, a Ramallah-born Palestinian-American and commissioner on the Philadelphia Youth Commission, told me. “The narrative is always about Israel and Palestine but what about the Palestinian people alone and their contributions to society economically, socially, historically, culturally?”
If the whole thing sounds extremely banal, you’re not wrong. And that’s what was distinct about it.
Palestine has long been a third rail in American politics, with even progressive politicians avoiding criticism of the Israeli government or any expression of support to Palestinians out of fear as being labeled anti-Semitic. Simply recognizing the existence of a Palestinian identity and community in Philadelphia — as the government does for so many ethnic and immigrant communities each year — is a powerful break from a tired and offensive narrative.
As a kid in Israel I learned in class the adage that the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea was a “land without a people” and as Jews we were “a people without a land.” Israel’s former prime minister Golda Meir told the Washington Post in 1969 that “There is no such thing as Palestinians.” While seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2011, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich called Palestinians an “invented” people.
So as I looked around the plaza on Monday afternoon, I was surprised to see that there were no counter-protesters. And in the following 24 hours my inbox didn’t fill up with press releases decrying anti-Semitism for the mere recognition of Palestinians. Even my social media, usually a hotbed of conversation about Israel and Palestine, was pretty quiet. The only exception was the Israeli Consulate in New York unsurprisingly urging Kenney to reconsider the event ahead of time.
At the event, the vast majority of speakers did not mention much of anything outside Philadelphia. Among the few who spoke more broadly was Saval who delivered a powerful speech tying the experience of the partition of Mandatory Palestine on November 29, 1947, to the partition of India and his family’s experience under British colonialism.
The days of Palestine as a taboo topic even among progressives are far from over, but things are slowly changing.
Since the Gaza war last May, more progressive politicians have been willing to speak up in defense of Palestinian human rights without fear of the political consequences. The progressive members of Congress, including Palestinian American Rep. Rashida Tlaib from Detroit, have challenged unconditional U.S. military aid and arms sales to Israel. Silence is still the majority’s de facto position, but what happened on Monday in Philadelphia might be another step toward a more courageous future.
That is critical because Palestinians are our neighbors. Erasing their identity, their struggle, and their pain erases a part of our community — one that, as Monday’s event showcased, is worth celebrating.