What is a Diaspora?

The term diaspora comes from the Greek word “διασπορά,” meaning dispersal and indicating an ethnic group that has been scattered throughout the globe. In other words, the term diaspora does not apply to just any circumstantial act of human mobility, but one in which emigration, and, most particularly, forced emigration is its essential characteristic. Furthermore, the term is reserved for a group of people whose members share, memory, features of an identity, and notions about home and the homeland.

Conflict, warfare, instability, and economic distress typically illustrate the kinds of social conditions from which people flee. Large migrations and mass exodus are generally associated with trauma and insecurity. Classical diasporic experiences usually start with episodes of violence and oppression in the homeland, followed by mass flight towards a new and safer life in host countries. After large numbers have resettled elsewhere, the group becomes a diaspora.


Stateless Diasporas

Unlike typical modern diasporas, which are state-linked, stateless diasporas lack a territorial marker of citizenship in their homeland. Consequently, most of the discourse employed by stateless diasporas centers on their position as a non-state nation. Ensuring the continuity of the community becomes an imperative step towards self-determination. As the largest stateless diaspora today, Palestinians are scattered throughout the globe. While members of the diaspora may hold citizenship in their host lands, for most, claims to their ancestral land are denied. This fact makes them distinct from any other diaspora group with roots in the Arab world. As a stateless nation — but a people fully identified with a particular land — the adoption of any other territory as “home” becomes problematic. Despite their lack of a physical base, and because of their identification with the injustices endured by their people, the Palestinian diaspora has been perceived to represent one of the most nationally and politically conscious diasporas in the world.

For Palestinians, the preservation of homeland memories is dominant in diasporic rhetoric and transmitted down to generations of diaspora offspring. However, resettlement often results in the acceptance of social and cultural characteristics of the host country, producing a hybrid personal culture that is more easily, and unavoidably, embraced by the second and third generations as this very exhibit illustrates.


Patterns of Migration

Palestinian immigration to the U.S. dates back to the late 19th century. An early indicator of their presence in the U.S. was the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia where several Palestinian entrepreneurs explored trade with American counterparts. This early immigrant group of Arabs from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine was primarily Christian, only about 10% being Muslim.

When the Ottoman government began forcing Muslims into army service, many of them fled the region, some heading to the US. This group of new immigrants was neither categorized as “Arab” nor “Syrian.” As subjects of the Ottoman Empire, they were considered “Turks” because they arrived to the US with Turkish passports. It was not until 1899 that the Immigration Service began to classify this immigrant group as Syrian. In the 1930s the identification of “Lebanese” began to be used, although an estimated 85% of the early immigrants came from the region that is now known as Lebanon. The largest influx of early Syrian immigrants took place on the eve of WWI when 9,000 Syrians were estimated to have arrived in the US.

In the 1900s, mass immigration was put to a halt with the passing of several Immigration Laws that set quotas for the number of immigrants allowed to enter the US. Syria and Lebanon were assigned 100 immigrants each per year. World War I would also present difficult traveling conditions that made it harder to pursue emigration. In 1924, The National Origins Act was passed. Its main purpose was to stop the wave of immigration that had swept the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These circumstances forced the early Arab immigrants to alter their original plans to be sojourners. Instead of making their stay temporary, many of the early immigrants became American citizens, staying permanently in their new host country.

Upon arrival in the US, most Arabic-speaking immigrants began to work as peddlers. The first wave of immigrants consisted of largely uneducated, unsophisticated farmers. Relatively poor, the only concern for a majority of these immigrants was to earn enough money in order to return to the homeland, and support their families there. America offered promises of quick wealth.

Substantial numbers of Palestinians left during the British mandate from 1920-1948. Most of the migration patterns for Arabic-speaking immigrants are similar to those of Palestinian immigrants. These migrants were officially lumped into the category of “Syrian” until the post-World War II era. After World War II, with the creation of independent Arab states, a new “nationalist consciousness” arose among the second wave of Arab immigrants who would begin to identify themselves according to their country of origin.

The most significant phenomenon of the post-WWII era is this creation of a distinct Arab-American identity, and the participation of this ethnic group in the US political sphere. This development resulted in the creation of several Arab-American member organizations aimed at mobilizing the community.

The Second Wave
After World War II, thousands of Arab emigrants began entering the United States. These immigrants were highly educated; they came with an “ideological dilemma that was new.” Having just gained independence, these new Arab arrivals classified themselves according to the country whose they claimed (i.e., Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi, etc.).

The driving forces behind emigration for these Arabs differed from the first wave. Educational opportunities at quality institutions attracted a large majority of second wave immigrants to the US. Major “push factors” that drove Arab immigrants from their countries included unstable political climates, warfare and occupation. Limited educational facilities in the Middle East also forced many to search for better educational opportunities elsewhere, especially in the United States.

The second wave was also larger than the first and included both Muslims and Christians. It is estimated that half a million Arab immigrants entered the US just since 1970. This more educated, more intellectual group was instrumental in giving birth to the “Arab-American” identity. Having just experienced the creation of Israeli statehood, they identified the Arab-Israeli conflict as their number one issue of concern.

Upon arrival, participants in the second wave did not consider themselves as temporary residents but as potential permanent citizens. Many imagined that they could refrain from assimilation, and utilize their status as cultural Arab-Americans to perhaps influence the US’s position in the Middle East. Tired of the US’s one-sided policies, a group of Arab-American intellectuals congregated with the aim of organizing a desirable platform that would help alleviate the racist stereotypes and discriminatory behavior aimed at Arabs in America. The first Arab-American association of this nature was the Arab American University Graduates (AAUG).

Palestinians living in the Gulf were also forced to leave the region after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991. This led to a rise in Palestinian migration to the U.S. Since 1990-1991, the US has become one of the primary locations for Palestinian resettlement. Many of these Palestinians represent migrants twice or thrice over, having fled their country or place of origin due to politics and/or warfare, sometimes suffering further displacements for similar reasons. Other large populations of Diaspora Palestinians live in Chile (the largest such community), Colombia, and Mexico.

The state of Massachusetts has the ninth largest population of Arab-Americans in the US. A majority of Palestinians in Massachusetts today tend to represent the middle to upper classes. Those Palestinians who have remained in the state either became more affluent over the years, or were economically comfortable to begin with. It is common for new, relatively poor, Palestinian immigrants to settle in less expensive states and more affordable US cities, which offer greater opportunities for savings and individual economic growth.


Forced Migration

Most instances of Palestinian migration (including up to the present), are considered to be forced because the state of Israel has adopted methods of ethnic cleansing in order to drive Palestinians out of the Jewish state. Although many of these instances of forced migration were involuntary, some of them are considered to be voluntary and the use of the term “forced” when referring to those instances has been debated. Yet, it is important to realize that, in most cases, those Palestinians who have endured such violent circumstances do not have any option other than to flee. Some, however, have faced less grave but still very difficult circumstances, where departure to preserve ones dignity and to embrace the possibility of a rewarding life becomes the only practical alternative to living under undesirable conditions in the home country.

Both the Nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1948, resulting from the founding of the state of Israel — which included the razing or depopulation of more than 350 Palestinian villages — and the June war in 1967 resulted in mass emigration of Palestinians out of their homeland. Many fled to neighboring countries such as Jordan (300,000 Palestinians resettled in Jordan in 1967), Lebanon, and Syria. In 1970, the Jordanian Civil War caused further emigration. Most Palestinians who left Jordan at this time resettled in Lebanon. Twelve years later, Israel invaded Lebanon, and a sizable number of Palestinians were forced to migrate again. Finally, during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Palestinians were pressured to leave the Gulf countries and ultimately banned from migrating to Kuwait as a result of Yasser Arafat’s alignment with Saddam Hussein. Many of these emigrants resettled in the U.S.

Many Palestinians from the West Bank fled immediately after the Israeli occupation in 1967; others left in the years following the occupation, looking to other countries for better work and educational opportunities, Palestinians who were residing outside of the West Bank prior to the Israeli occupation were not allowed to return after the occupation.

This wave of immigration turned temporary residents into permanent residents or citizens of their host country. Many Palestinians came to the U.S. with the thought of one day returning to Palestine, but the continuing occupation shattered these dreams and as a result a large number of Palestinians were forced to take up permanent residency in their host countries, sustaining and increasing the diasporic population.

Since the events of September 11, 2001, negative stereotyping of Palestinian-Americans has escalated, and Palestinian emigration to the US has been strictly limited. Negative imagery is widespread in US media and government discourse. Consequently, a stigmatized version of the Palestinian narrative has tainted American public opinion about Palestinians and produced unbalanced policies in the Middle East. Palestinian-Americans have a certain duty to reverse the negativity aimed towards them and their brethren in the Occupied Territories. Indeed, the Palestinian people (no matter where they reside in the diaspora) possess a rich history and culture that has been maintained since their exile from the homeland.


Conceptualizing Belonging & Homeland Rhetoric

Homeland in this case refers to Palestine. Whether or not one has been to Palestine or lived in Palestine, the notion of home is rooted in the ancestral homeland. This does not necessarily mean that each interviewee is longing either to return or to live there. On the contrary, the notion of return for Palestinians in diaspora proves to be more symbolic than substantial.

Although Palestine is considered the ancestral homeland for all of the interviewees through at least one parent, it is clear that conflict in the homeland impedes returning or settling there. Furthermore, for those not born there, the idea of moving to a place where one has never been, proves to be largely symbolic and romantic, since what is known about Palestine is based on the transmission and re-creation of memories, images, and history. Nevertheless, whether one has been to Palestine or not, a social Palestinian identity thrives and the employment of homeland rhetoric helps to maintain Palestinian national consciousness.


Political Identity

It is a rare occurrence among Palestinians to be ignorant of the origins and current situation of the Palestinian problem, or to be unaware of the political issues involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For the very reason that there is no sovereign Palestinian state, Palestinian-Americans tend to be acutely conscious of the Palestinian problem in all of its aspects and implications. In addition, it is virtually impossible to be a Palestinian in America and not be “political” about it. This fact applies to both foreign and American-born Palestinians who demonstrate awareness of the issues in the homeland and the US’s role in the conflict.

The Palestinian presence in America is a direct result of the political conflict in the homeland. Moreover, this presence becomes problematic for Americans whose only knowledge of Palestinians comes to them from the political realm and the media. Middle Easterners are highly stigmatized through negative portrayals in American mainstream, especially in US media. “Palestinians” and “Arabs” are so commonly equated with terrorism that many Palestinian-Americans have chosen either to fully assimilate into American culture as a method of avoiding conflict, or keep representations of their culture to a minimum.

In contrast to those impulses, the constant images of occupation and negative portrayals of Palestinian people oftentimes serve as a catalyst to the Palestinian-American understanding of strife and struggle, and make them politically savvy and identity conscious. Furthermore, as the link between America and Palestine, Palestinians in America perform a crucial role in promoting education and mutual understanding between the two countries and their peoples. Obviously, the inheritance of a hybrid identity makes it easier for Palestinian-Americans to encourage this understanding.


Maintaining Culture

Methods of maintaining culture among members of the Palestinian diaspora include involvement with religious communities, social justice groups, and professional occupations that particularly reflect their existential circumstances (in particular academic pursuits such as history, anthropology, political science and art history). Several interviewees employ informal vehicles such as visits to Palestine, spoken language, storytelling, and traditional activities (such as embroidery, cooking, and art), as a means to connect with the homeland.

The presence of the role of justice and political consciousness generates symbolic meaning of unity based on shared commitment to justice and peace in the homeland. Many comments by interviewees suggests that activism around Palestine, and the community that has been built around social justice, serve as a vehicle by which they can connect with the home and maintain its importance for generations to come — that is, until the emergence of a Palestinian state.

At the same time, the hybrid nature of being Palestinian-American presents challenges for some who describe their identity as a constant balancing act. Yet, these very experiences contribute to each individual’s constantly evolving identity.

First generation Palestinian-Americans are indeed aware of their “Palestinianness” thanks to both informal practices at home — introduced to them as young children by their parents — and formal practices once they began interacting with non-family members. Informal practices such as the use of Arabic at home may slow the process of “fitting in” to a school environment; nevertheless, it is hypothesized that the understanding and balancing of two identities among American-born citizens of Palestinian heritage progresses as they get older. It is also evident that American-born Palestinians possess sentiment towards their ethnic group and their shared aspiration of statehood. It appears that the plight of the Palestinian people and the ongoing conflict in the region compels the interviewees to highlight their Palestinian identity.