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Coming Out of the Palestinian Closet

And finally smashing the eggshells after thirty-five years on my tiptoes


A few years back, CNN correspondent, academic, and activist, Marc Lamont Hill said six fateful words on the floor of Congress, which ultimately cost him a huge chunk of his career.

“From the river to the sea.”

It’s a common slogan within Palestinian activist circles, a demand for a free Palestine from the river to the sea, i.e., the entire region that once belonged to Palestine. I’ve since changed my views dramatically, but at the time my first thought was, “You had to say that?! That?!” In my head, he’d dug his own grave.

Because—while we on the inside know what that means, that it refers simply to the need for freedom from oppression, racist policies, and settler colonialism for all Palestinians and non-Jews who live in the region, whether they are second-class citizens within Israel, occupied peoples in the West Bank, or the open-air prisoners of Gaza—when the outside world hears that phrase, they immediately interpret it to mean the complete annihilation of Israel and the people living there. It’s a gross extrapolation of course, a projection, one grounded in white supremacist fears, but it is the reality we have had to face at every turn.

Until now.

My initial reaction to Hill’s explosive proclamation was one based in fear. My fear. My non-confrontational nature. My inherited impulse for safety and security and stability as a child of immigrants and a child of refugees, as an inherited refugee myself. The voices in my head say, “Don’t stir the pot. You have a good job, a stable career, a steady income with a 401K and healthcare. You have everything your parents came to this country to achieve—if not for themselves, then for you.”

I’ve watched many crash and burn behind Palestinian activism, because of the toxic and insidious narrative perpetuated by the Israeli lobby that any criticism of Israel is antisemitic. So with my own milquetoast activism, I pause, weigh my words, curate my audience, and often just abstain.

Siham Inshassi wearing a traditional Palestinian tatreez thobe

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never denied or hidden my identity. If asked, I am Palestinian. Period. My grandparents on both sides were born in Jaffa, Palestine, in the 1920s and 1930s. All of them were expelled during the Nakba in 1948, when they were scattered all over the region. My family grew up in Beirut, Amman, Kuwait, Cairo, and ultimately the States, where I was born. My parents have been in New Jersey for forty years, and I’m going on ten in New York. We’ve settled in many places along the way, but home is and always will be Palestine. I’ve always said that proudly. But beyond that simple proclamation of self is where things get a little fuzzy.

Beyond that is where my fear kicks in.


Before the pandemic, I had a job that straddled two locations, New York and Philadelphia. I used to go to Philly about once a week to meet with the team there. Most days, lunch was provided, but occasionally, I’d be on my own flailing to figure out where to grab some midday nosh. One time, I was sitting with a Philly-based teammate asking for recommendations. She kept suggesting this great place with falafel or that spot with the best hummus.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons “Israeli food is appropriated food. For personal and political reasons, I can’t support it.”

What she didn’t realize I was doing, what I always do when introduced to any Middle Eastern restaurant, was Googling in real time to find out if the restaurant is Israeli. Sure enough, every place she suggested was Israeli. That’s when things got awkward. I didn’t know how to tell her I wouldn’t take her up on her offers. Normally I would just let sleeping dogs lie, wait until she leaves and do something else. But she wasn’t walking away, she was thinking of joining me, she was there, there, there. So, I mustered the courage to mutter semi-coherently that I don’t shop at Israeli restaurants.

“Why?” she asked, genuinely surprised and curious.

“Well,” a nice little pit forming in my stomach, “Israeli food is appropriated food. For personal and political reasons, I can’t support it.”

“Oh… Well, I liked it when I was there.”

I wanted to dig up the corporate carpet squares, line them up against the desk, and bunker down in that borrowed-office fort until spring.

It came flashing back to me then. That happy hour when I overheard her and another coworker talking about how much they enjoyed their Birthright trip, which made my scalp tingle at the hairline before I consciously walked away.

In that moment, I was petrified. I’d given away my cards. I talked about Israeli cultural appropriation with a card-carrying Zionist. Realistically, she was likely one of many young Jews who enjoy Birthright and think little of the occupation. Not actively Zionist, but unaware of the deeper political implications of the free trip she enjoyed in her youth. I didn’t worry she would have me fired, but the part of me who struggles with a certain level of social anxiety was pretty sure our working relationship would be wrecked forever. It wasn’t, but I also never added her to my Instagram after that. I’ve been on eggshells with her ever since.

Photo from the website of Zatoun-Fair Trade Olive Oil from Palestine “Palestinian oil is the best oil in the world . . . ‘Israeli oil’ is extracted from olive trees on stolen land that Israel capitalizes on.”

One of my bosses liked to brag about Israeli oil at happy hours, talking about how it’s the best oil in the world. Every time I’d hear it, I’d want to scream, and I’d then be grateful I wasn’t drunk enough at the time to do so. I want to correct them, tell them they are referring to Palestinian oil, that Palestinian oil is the best oil in the world, that “Israeli oil” is extracted from olive trees on stolen land that Israel capitalizes on. But that’s my boss, so I abstain.

One time, they said this in front of a group of people that included a young woman I knew to be Israeli. I knew this because she told me she was, after complimenting a t-shirt I was wearing that said “Yalla, Bye” on it, which was an awkward interaction in and of itself (you’re claiming my language, too, now?). During this particular happy hour, I just watched as the two enthusiastically agreed with each other while I downed the cocktail in my hand.

If you recognize yourself in these stories, know that I’m not putting you on blast. What I’m saying is: I’m terrified of you. I’m filled with so much fear, it is flat-out embarrassing. I’ve gotten to the point where a person, particularly a Jewish person, practically needs to walk up to me and say, “Hi I’m _____ and I’m a fierce anti-Zionist” before I can relax my guard enough to be open with you, to speak my truth, to advocate for my people—and frankly, to not assume you automatically hate me.

Photo by Samira Sadeque “George Floyd’s death and the mass protests that followed have had massive ripple effects for so many activist movements.”

But that’s changing. That’s why I’m here, writing this, why I’ve been on fire in my Instagram stories for the last few months, regarding the events happening in Sheikh Jarrah right now and the last siege in Gaza. Suddenly I’m just a little less afraid. George Floyd’s death and the mass protests that followed have had massive ripple effects for so many activist movements. For the last year, racial justice and human rights have suddenly become mainstream conversations. We’re talking about what human rights look like, and how systemic oppression manifests. We’re putting a critical eye on hate and the power structures that fuel it, pushing back against AAPI fear-mongering, transphobia, restriction of women’s bodies, and of course the gross disregard for Black lives. The words “ally” and “accomplice” are in vogue right now. There are many coattails to latch onto, dangling carrots of hope that maybe this time I can speak out, and maybe this time someone will hear.

So I do.

My whole body buzzes as I put together a mini-rant for my Instagram followers, after about a week of posting and sharing content about this latest uproar in Palestine—content that I already felt more free to share than I ever did in the past, after watching and supporting my Black and Asian friends as they proudly and unabashedly share their truths this last year. I’m talking about how Palestinians just in name are denied their very existence, how we are all basically walking political statements, because simply saying “I am Palestinian” can be controversial in the wrong circles. I invite my friends who consider themselves “allies” to be allies to their Walking Political Statement friends as well. It’s not everything, it barely scratches the surface, but in it, I bring up things I’ve been afraid to broach in the past.

I ask my friends to share our stories. I’d gotten so used to seeing the stories circulate among the Palestinians, never to breach non-Palestinian territory, so even that feels haunting, vulnerable. Asking them simply, “Is it so hard for you to care about us too?” I talk about cultural appropriation, asking that they push back when they see a traditional Palestinian kuffiyeh scarf or traditional tatreez (embroidery) being used in fashion without proper attribution. I reference the growing awareness that wearing a dashiki or kimono without consideration of the cultural relevance is no longer appropriate, and that sombreros and feathered headdresses can no longer be Halloween costumes. And I talk about food. And I do something unprecedented, for me, at least: I ask my non-Palestinian friends to not eat at Israeli restaurants.

Photo by Joyosity on Creative Commons “I cannot tolerate looking at the menu and seeing the names and pictures of my culture’s historic dishes presented in that elegant, white-washed way.”

Storytime again.

We’re now mid-pandemic, post-George Floyd, around the time we’re starting to cautiously enjoy some outdoor dining with a handful of equally cautious friends. I’m invited to a birthday brunch with about six people by another coworker. However, this coworker is the one I would consider closest, an actual friend. A growing friendship. I realize the night before the brunch that she’s invited us to an Israeli restaurant. I now have a dilemma on my hands. What do I do? Do I bail on her at the last minute? Do I suck it up and just go? Do I ask her to change the restaurant? I feel bad bailing but I also know that I will be bad company. I’ve gotten to the point that I cannot tolerate looking at the menu and seeing the names and pictures of my culture’s historic dishes presented in that elegant, white-washed way—the shakshuka in the fancy mini cast-iron skillet, missing about six key ingredients that give it it’s signature flavor; the fried bread that I know is actually Yemeni, because I was once married to one; the tapas-sized portions of bland falafel and hummus, served with pita chips instead of a proper loaf of bread. I can no longer tolerate looking around at all the smiling pale faces enjoying the food, entirely ignorant to the land, culture, and lives—literal blood, sweat, and tears—that were stolen in order to bring this business into existence.

I know I can’t be there. So, do I ask her to change her restaurant? Is our friendship like that? Are we that close? (For perspective, my closest friend is a white person who introduced himself to me as a pro-Palestine advocate on the very day we met. He’s been a unicorn in my life. He’s also my gauge.)

I ultimately decide to put the ball in her court. For lack of a better term (because I do genuinely like this woman), I test her, decide to let her tell me how much of a friend she intends to be. Like I said, we’re in an allyship-and-activism-are-cool period in history, so I text her, “Hey listen, I have to say something. I’m sorry but I just saw this. I noticed that Reunion is an Israeli restaurant. For me, Israeli food is a gross appropriation of my peoples’ and the surrounding peoples’ food, and as a personal rule, I cannot in good conscience support that business. I think I’ll have to skip. I love you and I’m conflicted about this, but in truth I wouldn’t be great company. I would just be angry the whole time and a major buzzkill. I’ll make it up to you later in the week.”

Her response: “OMG I’m so sorry, I didn’t even think. Of course, I respect that. I’m moved that you’re standing up for your culture. We’re going to a bar after, can I text you once we clear our plates?”

In case it’s not obvious, she did not pass the test.

To this day I never told her, and if she is reading this, I hope she knows that I get it, but that it hurt. However, the onus is on me as well. Until now, I’ve never felt like I had permission to openly exercise my own politics against Israel, let alone insist others do. I was sad to see her not pass the test at that time, not yet cross into the threshold of deeper friendship, but in hindsight I can argue my fear is just as culpable.

From the Facebook page of Jewish Voice for Peace-Kansas City “I am Palestinian, and I ask you to stand with me.”

So, in my Instagram rant, I make up for it. I say to my white friends, my Black friends, my AAPI friends, and to anyone who will listen: don’t eat at Israeli restaurants. Take the extra five minutes in your Googling and Yelping to check who owns the place, and then take a stand. Discover all the amazing Arab-owned businesses in your area instead. Buy your falafel from Ahmed, not Elan.

I tell my friends I’m tired and I’m sad. I tell them I’m fed up hiding in plain sight. I tell them I’m over being a Walking Political Statement.

And something happens.

My friends start sharing.

News, memes, videos, commentary. A cornucopia of Palestinian support.

And I’m bawling.

And I’m ripped wide open.

And I am unleashed.

Each day I see something new to share, and I’m still a little shell-shocked about the things I’m willing to say now. And how widely I’m willing to share them. I’ve gone from sharing the occasional sanitized clip to a daily onslaught. I’ve gone from, “Sorry I don’t buy Sabra and SodaStream” to “You need to boycott Sabra and SodaStream and this is why.” From “I don’t like that politician because he’s pro-Israel” to “Don’t vote for that politician, he’s anti-human-rights.” From tiptoeing around the “fault on both sides” argument and the concept of violent resistance to vehemently advocating for the right of an oppressed people to defend themselves. I even saw a picture roam through my socials that shocked the pants off me. It said, “Blaming Hamas for firing rockets is like blaming a woman for punching her rapist.” Opinions of Hamas aside, this felt seismic. It is evidence that a diametric shift in the narrative is happening, and it’s giving me, dare I say… hope?

Suddenly I’m giving daily lessons on checkpoints, land theft, settlements, child arrests, lack of access to clean water, the history of Zionism, pinkwashing, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), the relationship between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the US police force, the fact that Palestinians are actually Semites, and, of course, cultural appropriation.

Am I now fearless? God no, I’m still utterly petrified. My company currently prides themselves on condemning hate, but I’m terrified to remind them that many of us—particularly those impacted by international ties to India, Colombia, Afghanistan, and Palestine—feel forgotten in their rally cry. Although it’s losing power rapidly and that’s wildly exciting, the power of the Zionist lobby is still immense.

The only difference is, I’m starting to feel like maybe more people will have my back, like Marc Lamont Hill did all those years ago.

So here I am now. Quite anxious, with general difficulty asking for help, trying to crush those eggshells underfoot, so I can stand strong and say, “I am Palestinian, and I ask you to stand with me.”


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Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series of writing about Palestine and Palestinians, written by Palestinian American writers, published in the wake of the Israeli government ordering the expulsion of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, which led to Israeli raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and aerial bombardment of Gaza in May 2021.

You may also be interested in these related stories:

The Nakba is Present: The looming threat of yet another mass expulsion of Palestinians is ever present

Rites of Return: What does it mean for a Palestinian living in the United States to resist?

1948: An 11-year-old boy was forced to grow up fast when occupying Israeli soldiers seized his tiny Palestinian village.

Broken Ghazal, Before Balfour: Two Poems by George Abraham