“In the US, we are living in a time that is worse than the few years after the September 11th attacks,” said Rasmea Odeh to nearly 1,000 people gathered at the Chicago Teachers Union Hall to commemorate International Women’s Day on March 8. “Israeli and U.S. policies make it easy to target our people,” she continued, “but Palestinians are resisting these attacks in Palestine, and here in the U.S., we are all resisting Trump’s attacks on immigrants, Black people, Arabs and Muslims, and others.” The audience responded with a standing ovation.
Rasmea Odeh is among the eight women who endorsed the Women’s March call to strike in commemoration of International Women’s Day. Her co-signatories included trailblazing intellectuals, activists, and leaders like Angela Davis, Barbara Ransby, Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor, Linda Martín Alcoff, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser. Yet not everyone has been enthusiastically receptive to Odeh or her message. No other signatory received the same scorn and scrutiny in both mainstream outlets—like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune—and right-wing rags like Breitbart and Legal Insurrection, as well as some in between. These stories attacked Odeh as a “convicted terrorist” and an “illegal immigrant,” mercilessly disparaging her character and with it, everything Odeh stands for—and everyone who stands for her.
Odeh is a Palestinian woman. She is a former political prisoner and has been a leading immigrant rights and women’s rights advocate in Chicago since 2004. She is also a survivor of sexual violence. In 1969, Israel accused her of placing an explosive device in a supermarket and killing two university students in Jerusalem. An Israeli military tribunal convicted her based on testimony extracted through torture, an ordeal that included sexual assault. During this experience, the Israeli Army also undressed her father in front of her and threatened to force him upon her. Odeh rescinded her forced confession shortly after making it. (Odeh’s opponents insist she confessed days after her arrest, rather than after weeks of sexual torture, and that she received a fair trial observed by the International Committee for the Red Cross.) Israeli military tribunals, which have a 99 percent conviction rate against Palestinians, did not reverse their decision. Nearly 50 years later, the United States Department of Justice is using this false conviction to strip Odeh of her US citizenship and deport her.
Perhaps the conservative establishment’s onslaught against Odeh is to be expected. After all, they have righteously adopted a white nationalist platform. But the alignment of self-described liberal feminists with the right on this issue is particularly disturbing. Bustle politics editor Emily Shire, in the New York Times, acknowledges the possible lack of fairness in Odeh’s conviction, but thinks that her alleged membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is sufficient to earn the disdain of feminists. For Shire, the Department of State listing of the PFLP as a terrorist organization justifies such ire. In a follow-up piece in The Forward, Shire is less nuanced and explicitly calls Odeh a “convicted terrorist.”
Perhaps if Odeh was from Guatemala, Uganda, Nepal, or even Kashmir, Shire may be more sympathetic because, unlike in Palestine, a national security framework has not twisted and bludgeoned fundamental human rights issues. But that Odeh is Palestinian and is committed to Palestinian liberation apparently makes her case and her cause worthy of exception. Indeed, Shire is troubled by the inclusion of the “decolonization of Palestine” in the Women’s March Platform and asks, “Why should criticism of Israel be key to feminism in 2017?” Such quotes betray the fact that, more than the question of affiliation with a group that advocates armed struggle, Shire’s problem with Odeh is about the latter’s political cause: Palestinian liberation—independent of whether that liberation is accomplished by nonviolent means.
Shire is protesting her self-described exclusion—as a Zionist, not as a Jewish woman—from the Women’s March Platform. The distinction is everything: Judaism is a religion, whereas Zionism is a modern nationalist project that sought to revive the religion as a national category and establish a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine, where a native Arab Christian and Muslim population already lived and sought self-determination. Zionism, in practice, has necessitated the forced removal and exile of those Palestinians as well as the confiscation of their lands and homes and their treatment as second-class citizens at best. Not all Jews are Zionists, let alone Israeli, and the deliberate effort to collapse the religion with the national project disturbingly equates anti-Jewish bigotry with anti-Zionism in ways that both punish protest against Israel and elide the significant number of Jewish individuals and organizations that are part of the movement for Palestinian liberation.
Shire’s pieces advocate for an even more exclusionary alternative that not only erases Palestine and Odeh, but also threatens to erase a history of colonialism and anti-racism led by the most affected and vulnerable communities. She writes:
Increasingly, I worry that my support for Israel will bar me from the feminist movement that, in aiming to be inclusive, has come to insist that feminism is connected to a wide variety of political causes This insistence can alienate feminists, like myself, who don’t support all the causes others believe should be part of feminism. For example, some who identify as feminists may not agree with the organizers of the International Women’s Strike when they call for a $15 minimum wage. Nor do all feminists necessarily join the strike organizers in supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters.
It is difficult to imagine the New York Times publishing an op-ed by a self-identifying feminist disparaging a $15 minimum wage or women leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux nation. Yet at the same time, an attack on Palestine and Odeh—a Palestinian woman, sexual assault survivor and grassroots organizer—is tolerated. Indeed, attacks on Palestine have historically functioned as an entry point to undermine progressive agendas—as most recently demonstrated by the Zionist establishment attacks on the Platform for the Movement for Black Lives, which included the demand for Palestinian liberation and endorsed the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
The 2005 BDS Call, and the global solidarity movement that has endorsed it, is rooted in a social justice ethos and is entwined with a commitment to combat all forms of bigotry, including against Jews. Palestinians are calling for equality, plurality, dignity, and justice for all, including for Jewish-Israelis. The extremity of their demand is to dismantle institutionalized Jewish privilege and, its correlate, institutionalized Palestinian subjugation. In their vision, there is room for everyone but no place for apartheid, settler-colonialism, or occupation.
Zionists are insisting that a Jewish state be preserved at all costs, even if that means refusing the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands and establishing discriminatory laws and policies that directly harm Palestinian citizens of Israel, 25 percent of the population, in order to maintain a Jewish demographic majority. As for the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Zionists suggest they either be transferred to other Arab countries, continue to live in semi-autonomous and non-contiguous Bantustans, or, in the best-case-liberal-scenario, establish a state with quasi-sovereignty contingent on Israeli security interests. Unlike the Zionist vision, the Palestinian vision for the future is not based on a zero-sum outcome. That is why the US-based Palestinian solidarity movement aligns with the progressive left agenda, as recently demonstrated by acts of solidarity at Standing Rock and by collaborations with the Movement for Black Lives; this is precisely what is troubling liberal Zionists.
Shire and other liberal critics attacking Odeh based on a confession obtained through sexual torture—and bemoaning a growing women’s movement’s inclusion of Palestine solidarity—indicates not just a blinding commitment to Israel, but a reckless blind spot regarding the current political moment.
Especially since Trump’s ascendance, a US-based progressive left movement has steadily entered the center of the political landscape to lead “the resistance.” The Women’s March was originally conceived to vindicate Hillary Clinton’s defeat, and to protest Trump’s outright misogyny. In response to fervent critique that the planned march risked appropriating a legacy of black liberation protests and excluding women of color, as well as a progressive base more generally, organizers of the Women’s March invited three women of color movement leaders—Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez—to co-chair the March. Their tremendous leadership not only salvaged the March but made it one of the largest and most energetic convergences on Washington and across the United States in over a decade, indicating the national political mood: rebellious.
And still, critiques of the March, primarily from trans communities and black women who highlighted their continued marginalization and erasures, have pushed the movement to be even more expansive, more responsive, and more visionary. In an unexpected turn, the most targeted and disenfranchised communities are finally being seen and heard. In times of relative normalcy, these communities endure structural violence in the shadows of the nation’s political imagination—what the entire country is witnessing collectively right now. When the political moment leaves no room for irony, the radical becomes reasonable and compels us to finally listen more intently to those communities at the bottom of the well. This is what Sarsour meant when she explained to Marchgoers in January that when women of color lead they leave no one behind. This is a very special moment and is arguably one of the few things we should be celebrating in this cruel transition.
Rasmea Odeh epitomizes this progressive left movement and exemplifies the women to whom we should be listening. It is no coincidence or spectacle that she is among the eight signatories endorsing the Women’s Strike. She leads a project of the Chicago-based Arab American Action Network, the Arab Women’s Committee (AWC), which is dedicated to providing services to immigrant and refugee women primarily from the Arab world and primarily from working-class backgrounds. In her signature style of building from the bottom up, Odeh recruited 700 women by walking from door to door and making cold calls based on Arabic-looking names in the yellow pages—ensuring that the women would speak for themselves.
As a result of her work-intensive and selfless organizing ethic, the AWC has become a critical institution providing English and citizenship classes, counseling on issues ranging from domestic violence to social services, and a safe space for women to share intimate stories from within their homes and beyond as they navigate their new lives in the United States. Odeh has helped Arab working-class immigrant and refugee women empower themselves and has avoided the mantle of the heroic leader as savior. She is an under-celebrated gem by design, and an example of the women who have led from behind and indelibly shaped our modern history, like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker.
Odeh also represents the most affected immigrant communities that have been targeted, criminalized, and maligned as a result of racist scapegoating for the nation’s economic failures. She is an immigrant herself who is now in the violent throes of an arbitrary system that has ripped families apart, enacted deportations without due process, terrorized communities, and is now beseeching the construction of a militarized wall along the U.S.’s southwestern border.
After Odeh’s release from Israeli captivity in a prisoner swap in 1979, she testified about her torture before the United Nations. When she applied for citizenship in 2004, she stated she had no record to speak of. As a result of the PTSD associated with her torture together with not understanding the scope of the question, she answered no. “If I knew [the naturalization application question] was about Israel,” she explains, “I would have put it... It’s not a secret that I’ve been in jail. Even the embassy knows.” As in most immigration proceedings, her sincerity made little difference.
In late 2014, the Department of Justice tried Odeh for lying to the federal government. The presiding Judge allowed evidence of her false conviction to be entered into the record, but refused to allow testimony about her torture or her psychological evaluation demonstrating that she continues to live with PTSD. The District Court convicted her of unlawful procurement of naturalization, 18 months of jail time, and ordered that she be deported. In early 2016, an appellate court reversed the decision, citing the Judge’s failure to enter her torture and PTSD into evidence.
Her new trial was scheduled for May 30, but on Thursday Odeh accepted a plea deal: she will plead guilty to unlawful procurement of naturalization, stripping her of her U.S. citizenship and resulting in deportation without prison time. Expectations of a fair trial in this xenophobic political climate—wherein immigration agents have found new reign to arbitrarily remove immigrants and the Administration had the audacity to issue a bare-faced Muslim Ban—are quixotic. In preparation for Odeh’s new trial, the United States re-framed its indictment to make the case about terrorism and not immigration. After being in the United States for 20 years dedicated to selfless service, the government’s campaign against Odeh reeks of a political witch hunt, and her deportation as an eerie omen of the worst yet to come. In some ways, the plea deal is a victory because the US Government had earlier sought a five- to seven-year prison sentence. In all ways, Rasmea Odeh embodies the struggles of those immigrant women she seeks to empower.
The US government has targeted and persecuted Odeh based on a false conviction obtained as a result of sexual torture. Rather than denounce the institutions that harmed her, the judicial system and the liberal establishment, which has either been complicit, at best, or in collusion at worst, has blamed and punished her for her suffering. Her trial proceedings have been similarly gendered and abysmal. Nadine Naber, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago and an organic leader of the Arab-American community, described the trial as manifesting the most blatant hetero-patriarchal norms: Not only did the first judge presiding over her case exclude her testimony of rape and PTSD, he initially denied Odeh bail for failure to demonstrate community ties, despite her undeniable place and roots in the Chicago community. “The misogynist and heterosexist nature of the ruling was clear,” said Naber, “suggesting that a woman has to be married with children to have community.”
Finally, Rasmea Odeh represents the struggle for Palestine. While the liberal political order has not embraced Palestine, the progressive left increasingly has. This political solidarity is based on several analytical strands including anti-imperialism, anti-racism, and intersectional feminism.
While it may be lost on most US audiences, the Palestinian struggle for liberation has historically been a part of, and often central to, global third-world struggles against colonialism and neocolonialism. Throughout the’70s, the Non-Aligned Movement considered the liberation of Palestine from Israeli domination as part of the same agenda to liberate Mozambique and Angola from Portuguese rule, as well as South Africa and Namibia from European Afrikaaner and German Afrikaaner rule, respectively. Palestine is the only nation among these nations that has yet to achieve liberation—and that is largely because of the U.S.’s unequivocal economic, diplomatic, and military support to Israel.
Lyndon B. Johnson inaugurated a policy of ensuring Israel’s military dominance in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 1967 War and in the context of its penetration into Vietnam (a hot war in the Cold War). Even after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the US has continued to provide Israel with unqualified aid: it is the single largest recipient of US aid, more than all of Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America combined. In its last year, the Obama Administration increased that aid package from $3 billion to $3.8 billion annually over the next ten years. The U.S. has vetoed no less than 44 Security Council resolutions, shielding Israel from legal accountability; far surpassing the number of vetoes it issued on behalf of protecting Apartheid in Namibia and South Africa. For a progressive left movement concerned with internationalism, the US’s unequivocal support for Israel is emblematic of everything that is wrong with US foreign policy.
In 1975, and at the height of the rise of the global south, the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution declaring Zionism as a form of racism. While the Palestinian Liberation Organization rescinded the resolution in 1991 as a condition for entering into a peace agreement with Israel, race continues to inform the conflict and the public discussion surrounding it. At the 2001 Durban Review Conference on Global Racism, the United States pulled out of the conference and undermined its progress because the global participants highlighted Israeli Apartheid as part of its anti-racist platform.
In preparation for the conference, Nadine Naber—along with Eman Desouky and Lina Baroudi—co-authored a paper, The Forgotten–Ism: An Arab American Women’s Perspective on Zionism, Racism, and Sexism, that details the entwinements of feminism and the question of Palestine, more generally. The paper never enjoyed the substantive engagement it deserved. To shield Israel, as well as to avoid a discussion about its own accountability for reparations, the United States undermined the entire global anti-racist agenda, vividly illustrating the ways that the liberal establishment is willing to sacrifice principled positions in the name of protecting what it considers a righteous exception.
Despite the best efforts of the US government and liberal institutions to foreclose even public discussion and to punish activism, scholars and (particularly) activists have continued to highlight the substantive claims regarding Israel’s racialized violence. Especially since 2014, during the mass protests in Ferguson and Israel’s largest military offensive against the besieged Gaza Strip to date, transnational activism has led to the resurgence of Black-Palestinian solidarity. This culminated in the Summer 2016, when the Black Lives Matter Movement endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel as part of its Platform. Significantly, several establishment Zionist institutions denounced the Platform and rescinded their support for Black Lives Matter, accusing it of anti-Semitism; it indicated yet another instance of shutting down critically principled conversations when they refuse to exceptionalize and absolve Israel’s racism. In response to the backlash, the BLM doubled down in its solidarity with Palestine.
Rasmea Odeh embodies the progressive left agenda, and in doing so she is also a lucid example of intersectional feminism, which accounts for womanhood as a multidimensional experience. In the 1974 Combahee River Statement, a group of black feminists wrote:
We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in Black women’s lives as are the politics of class and race. We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual, e.g., the history of rape of Black women by white men as a weapon of political repression.
It is in the context of this legacy, for example, that the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) endorsed the boycott of Israel in 2015. Angela Davis, the former political prisoner and internationally renowned activist and scholar, was among those who supported the NWSA’s boycott resolution and is a staunch and prominent advocate of Palestinian liberation. She is also among Rasmea Odeh’s outspoken allies, whom she defends and with whom she collaborates, including most recently in the call for the Women’s Strike.
The fact that liberal feminists are surprised by the inclusion of Palestine in the Women’s March platform today and are offended by Rasmea’s leading role in the movement speaks to their deafness of this political moment. They are also missing the opportunity to join a movement that seeks to lift everyone from the bottom up, instead threatening to unravel the movement altogether.
Solidarity with Palestinians is part of a bold vision for freedom. It undermines Jewish supremacy embodied by an exclusively Jewish state but does not necessitate the removal, deprivation, criminalization, mass incarceration, and ghettoization of Jewish communities that Zionism has necessitated against Palestinians. Instead, it advocates for a future of co-existence and equality. This vision for freedom has room for everyone and preaches that our liberation is not contingent. In the example of exiled political prisoner Assata Shakur, the progressive left movement leading the charge against the Trump Administration’s xenophobic and oppressive agenda, is preaching all of us or none of us. That is Rasmea Odeh’s message. That is why when you come for her, you are coming for all of us.
Noura Erakat is a human rights attorney, activist, and an Assistant Professor at George Mason University where she teaches Critical Race Studies, International Human Rights Law and the Middle East, among other courses. Her short multimedia documentary, Gaza In Context, rehabilitates Israel’s wars on Gaza within a settler-colonial framework. She is also the producer of the short video Black Palestinian Solidarity, and is currently working on a book project tentatively titled Law as Politics in the Palestinian-Israel Conflict.