Activism through education: How one faith-based organization supports Palestine in the midst of political pushback

WASHINGTON-In 2006, a group of activists came together with the desire to create a community space within the Palestinian and Muslim-American community, specializing in education surrounding Palestinian rights. Starting as a mostly volunteer-based organization in the Midwest, this not-for-profit organization, American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), became national with staff and chapters in multiple states. This rapid organizational growth occurred in 2009 after the Gaza War which resulted in over 1,000 deaths of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. Through this crisis, emerged a push for change among community activists in the U.S.

Now the organization is taking on large projects by either sending interfaith activists on delegations to Palestine to working with student groups on campus or doing advocacy work on the Hill.

“We’re at a critical moment, I think for the first time a lot of people are recognizing even in the mainstream that Palestine is central to even our domestic discourse on politics,” said Taher Herzallah, Associate Director of Outreach & Grassroots Organizing.

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, American support for Palestinians has increased, although marginally since July, 2014. The support was more prominent among liberal democrats at 40 percent and millennials at 27 percent.

AMP’s intentions are to increase the support with education and advocacy through events, lectures and cultural events as well as congressional and local engagement. Their Palestine Advocacy Day and Training recruits people from around the country for a two-day advocacy training to go around the Hill and discuss various policy issues.

According to Herzallah, their focus in previous training days swayed towards anti-BDS bills which put legal restrictions against individuals or institutions engaging in the call from Palestinians to boycott, divest and sanction Israeli companies which they argue profit off of the occupation of Palestinian land.  For example, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) would prohibit business and companies from engaging in a boycott against Israel. They also focused on advocating the rights for Palestinian children incarcerated by the Israeli government.

Government Relations Coordinator, Kareem El-Hosseiny, focuses specifically on the state and federal legislation regarding Palestine. He testified against the Ohio, Maryland and New York anti-BDS bills. He found that all the instances were successful except for the bill introduced in New York.

The beginning of their 12-day-long delegation to Palestine was slightly disrupted when five of the team leaders were denied entry from the Dulles Airport. According to  Herzallah one of which was a Rabbi, as well as one of AMP’s members and a Presbyterian leader.

The incident was seen as “Really cementing the idea that Israel is truly an apartheid regime,  very sensitive to criticism of the status quo,” according to Herzallah.

However, Herzalllah still saw the trip as fruitful.

“We happened to be there when everything was going down this past summer in Jerusalem,” he said referencing the Al-Aqsa mosque protests and sit-ins instrumented by Palestinians in response to the restrictions and higher security measures imposed by the Israeli government.

These restrictions were imposed after two Israelis security guards were murdered at the mosque allegedly by three Palestinians. This action by the Israeli government was widely condemned by many human rights activist groups while some groups and individuals supported the measures out of safety reasons. The protests and clashes between the Palestinian people and Israeli soldiers and civilians resulted in the death of 11 individuals.

“They witnessed first- hand the way Israel was treating the Palestinians, denying them access to their places of worship,” Herzallah said.

El-Hosseiny appreciated that the people that attended the delegation were interested in social justice already.

“You didn’t have to explain to them that what they were seeing was wrong,” said El-Hosseiny who attended the delegation.

Herzallah, whose role is to work with chapters across the U.S., do outreach with other groups including education and training events grew up in a family of activists. “My dad was a driving force in helping educate us about Palestine,” he said.

Having family from Gaza, he boosted his engagement in Pro-Palestine activism after the 2008 Gaza War. The war, sending him onto a humanitarian aid convoy, made him witness first-hand the situation his family was in.

“I got to see my family in the condition they were living in it sorted added to the sense of urgency in the work that we are supposed to be doing here,” he said.

He found it clear that Palestinians wanted Americans to work in the U.S. to advocate for their rights through stopping U.S. aid to Israel and the control of Gaza.

“It’s one thing to provide humanitarian aid after a crisis but it’s a whole other thing to prevent that human-made catastrophe in the first place,” he said.

AMP reached out to him in 2010 and he has been working with them ever since.

Like Herzallah, El-Hoisseny also got introduced to activism through friends and family. Having Egyptian parents, he was involved in protests in Egypt during the Arab Spring. In 2016 he moved to Washington to do advocacy work for Egypt, especially since many of his friends there are still in prison.

Over the years with working with AMP, Herzallah and El-Hoisseny see many clear barriers the organization faces. One of them Herzallah finds, is combating organizations that actively work against their cause. “We don’t work in a vacuum, we do have enemies we do have opposition”, he said.

Both he and El-Hoisseny also believe that fact that U.S. policy is often in favor towards Israel is limiting. El-Hoisseny says the hardest part for him is getting members of Congress who agree with Palestine to take a moral stance towards their organization’s  goals.

“When we go into meetings, we’re not even talking about liberating Palestine we’re talking about just securing some semblance of Palestinian human rights and human dignity which is a very difficult thing for me personally to do,” he said, “Asking to be treated like a human being is very dehumanizing in and of itself.”

However, Herzallah and El-Hoisseny are  hopeful for the future. El-Hoisseny considers the movement “one of the most shining examples of modern day right verses wrong.”

Herzallah sees Democratic voters shifting towards Palestinian rights and also elected officials acknowledging that shift and changing their language, although he argues that their policies may not reflect their change in language. However, he sees that change as a sign of the movement in  a good direction.

“I’m hoping that momentum carries through the next election and then after that, that’s our hope and that’s what we’re going to be working on in the next couple years” he said.

However, Herzallah still acknowledges the harsh environment Palestinian rights activists can face. He urges young activists to protect themselves against potential attacks. “Keep going, there’s really no other option for us –even if we stay quiet it doesn’t mean that we will not be targeted,” he said while adding, “Even if we try to stay away from politics it doesn’t mean that we will not be affected by politics.”

He acknowledged the surveillance of Palestinian rights activist groups in the U.S.

“We have to have an understanding that the only way forward is to keep going is to keep fighting against what we all know is a system of injustice and that the only way to fix that problem is to end that system of injustice completely not to modify it or amend it” Herzallah said.

El-Hoisseny’s outlook is bright too and it is clear that they care deeply about the work they do for American Muslims for Palestine.

“Working on a cause that I go home every day to and I’m doing something that’s benefitting other people has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of your life,” El-Hoisseny said.



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