In the 6th grade, I was not allowed to exist as Palestinian. Today, my culture is still a threat to many.

by Liz Bajjalieh, CAPA Student Network Director  |

Even as a little girl I couldn’t escape it: what it means to be silenced.

Navigating the United States when you’re a Palestinian of the Diaspora is a difficult, complex experience. My first time I learned I was Palestinian was in the 6th grade, when my elementary school had a “culture day,” in which students could go on a stage in front of the school and talk about their ancestral heritage.

Growing up, I wasn’t really taught that I had much of any cultural background outside of being “American” or “Catholic,” and occasionally Mom brought up that we’re Irish. But when I brought up culture day to my parents, for the first time in my life, Dad brought up a new place that his family came from: Palestine.

I was fascinated. What was this mysterious Palestine floating within me? Ireland I had known existed since the first time I saw Saint Patrick’s Day on my pre-school calendar, but this gorgeous sounding Middle Eastern place was new, and caught my imagination. Until then, I hadn’t even known that “Bajjalieh” was a Palestinian last name. I’d thought my grandfather invented hummus.

A whole new part of myself opened up to the world.

I just had to do some kind of presentation on my family’s heritage  for culture day. My parents gave their full support and resources. Dad pulled out my great-grandmother’s wedding dress, a beautiful thobe with curling red tatreez. When I spun around, it twirled like a flower recently bloomed.

But when I proposed giving a speech on my Palestinian family history and identity to the school, I got a pretty quick answer: no. You can’t do that performance. I wasn’t told why; I wasn’t given space to protest.

I was shocked and confused. I just wanted to show off this place my grandfather came from and dance around in my great grandmother’s dress. I didn’t understand; what made me different? Why wasn’t I worthy of performance? Had I done something wrong, was I not good enough?

It took action from my mom to reverse this. After I’d told her what the school had done, she was furious, and she sent an email straight to the principal. “Why won’t you let my daughter perform? Is it because you don’t like her? I don’t think so. This is discrimination. It can’t be allowed.”

My mom’s  email was enough to make the school cave, but there was a stipulation: I had to call it “the Palestinian Territories,” not “Palestine.”

So, therein was the compromise. I was allowed to take part in culture day, but only as a person from a half-real “territory,” not a historic place rich with centuries of indigenous Palestinian heritage.

I’m glad I was allowed to perform. But it took work, it took a fight from my white Irish-American mom to get me on that stage.  (And I have a feeling that things would have gone differently if my brown, Palestinian-American dad had sent that email). My mom had to make clear that I exist beyond a political controversy.

I wasn’t hoping to march into the auditorium and deliver a speech on concrete walls or divided highways. I wasn’t asking to go on stage to demand accountability for Israel’s apartheid. I didn’t even know what that word meant. I just wanted to twirl in my grandmother’s flowery thobe. But that was too much for the school.

Even the notion of a little girl celebrating her Palestinian ancestry was a threat. It was going too far. Even at that young age, I was taught that my truth, my existence, is a battlefield.

Despite that being way back in 2005, I still face moments like this today. I’ve faced discrimination from organizations asking me to water down speeches for fear of “upsetting the donors”, invasive searches from Ben Gurion’s airport security in Tel Aviv simply because my last name is Palestinian, even silencing from my own friends who tell me they’d prefer I don’t talk about Palestine in public. They don’t want to deal with the potential they’ll be seen talking to me while a future employer sits at the coffee shop across from us.

It’s funny, because I also type this story out as a queer woman. And yet despite the oppression I faced for my queerness, I find it easier to tell the world that I’m queer. Yes, that’s in big part due to the privilege of having access to countless spaces that embrace our LGBT community. But when it comes to Palestine, the spikes I have to walk over to be myself in the world stab my feet more deeply than when I exist as queer.

This is what happens when the Israeli government decides to erase a whole people. For decades, since the Nakba began – the catastrophic expulsion of Palestinians from our homes – , pro-Israel voices have worked to obscure our existence. My stories are nothing compared to what Palestinians in the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza face daily: separate ID cards, child detention, depleted water reserves, the risk of being shot and killed for driving on the wrong highway.

I’m lucky. My struggle is just one of identity. I’ve never feared for my life, my home or my family, as Palestinians across Israel, Palestine, and bordering refugee camps do. I walk this world with white skin, so I never had to face the same ugly surveillance, state violence, and even social violence so present for brown bodies in the United States.

But that’s at the heart of what the Israeli state and their right-wing lobbying arm has been doing to destroy us. They make us, as individuals, a threat. They turn us into complex, controversial things. The powerful right-wing pro-Israel lobby has done an overwhelmingly good job of normalizing this in the United States: creating a political world where even the most mundane critiques of Israel’s actions are labeled as “anti-Semitic.” A world in which  Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch, and B’Tselem simply naming Israel’s apartheid crimes causes an absolute uproar.

And that drips into our nation’s social fabric, where little girls are told they’re not allowed to dance in their great grandmother’s dresses, only to grow up and be told they need to be careful when they talk about Palestine, because a single tweet supporting Palestine could destroy their career.

We have to lift the curtains forced over Palestinians. Not just so we in the diaspora can have our celebratory culture days. But so Palestinian refugees can stop being denied the right of return because they’re “not really Palestinian.” We need to lift it so Palestinian children can stop being detained and tortured in the West Bank because, “well, both sides are violent, really.” We need to finally allow residents of Sheikh Jarrah a life free of the fear that their home will be bulldozed at 3 AM for “Israel’s security.” And for Gazan to be free of bombardment after bombardment after bombardment as the Israeli government says over and over that it’s just the reality of “conflict.”

We need the US media to talk about us like we’re human beings. We need US politicians to acknowledge that what is happening to Palestinians on the ground is apartheid, and to sign onto legislation such as the Representative Betty McCollum’s Palestinian Children and Family’s Act which simply seeks oversight into how the Israeli military is spending US tax dollars.

I want a world where Palestine is free, where the constant ethnic cleansing destroying our historic land and our ancestry is over. Where graves aren’t dug up, houses aren’t bulldozed. Where the worst thing a Palestinian has to complain about is bad weather. We need to create a world where no little girl ever has to choose between shrinking or fighting if she simply wants to exist.

Join CAPA in celebrating an important anti-nuclear victory: Chicago City Council just passed a Back from the Brink resolution!!

CAPA and our Back from the Brink Coalition partners, including Union of Concerned Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and others – would like to thank all who helped make this happen, and recognize the leadership of Chicago Alders Maria Hadden (49th Ward), Daniel La Spata (1st Ward), and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward)!

As our partners with the Union of Concerned Scientists note, “The Chicago City Council today passed a resolution calling on President Biden and Congress to cease spending federal tax dollars on nuclear weapons, embrace the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and make global disarmament a priority. Chicago joins a movement of 50 municipalities that have passed “Back from the Brink” resolutions and is the largest midwestern city to have done so.” (Read the full article here!)

This resolution is one major move further in the continuing work of nuclear disarmament. We now look forward to next action steps. Join CAPA and friends in the movement to divest our cities and nations from war! And remember to celebrate today’s victory. 

Invest in Unarmed Civilian Protection, Not Militarism

by Charles Johnson, CAPA Organizing Director |

Militaries and military alliances are said to protect us. Meanwhile, they facilitate the global spread of weaponry, destruction, displacement, regime change–all while ignoring the rulings of the International Criminal Court. Even the most record-setting military spending doesn’t prevent attacks, invasions, or mass shootings. In fact, it tends to reinforce and replicate them. Investing in armed protection doesn’t keep people safe.

Still, many of us hesitate to back divestment from military: “If weapons go away, safety goes away, right?” Incorrect. While divesting from military, we can invest in proven safety models like Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP), a weaponless framework which is an effective alternative to armed protection.

UCP has grown worldwide for three decades, recognized by the UN as a viable conflict response since 2015. Essentially what UCP is: nonpartisan teams of paid, trained specialists enter deadly conflict zones unarmed, and de-escalate with strategic methods based around presence. UCP may seem paradoxical–how can unarmed people walk into war zones?–but protects more effectively than militaries, more effective even than armed peacekeeping forces like the UN’s Blue Helmets.

Unlike armed protection, UCP gives primacy to local community members. UCP teams enter by invitation and increase safe space for communities to do their own work of peace and justice. In places where UCP methods like Protective Presence operate, local efforts of de-escalation, mutual understanding, and peacebuilding grow. While militaries seek to one-up each other in destruction and propaganda, UCP methods like Monitoring and Relationship Building create contacts on all sides and power levels, to hold parties accountable when their words or actions contradict grassroots reports.

We may think “It would never work in conflict X, Y, or Z”– yet decades of evidence shows UCP works even in escalated conflicts, amid assault rifles and artillery. And people in escalated conflicts are seeking protection that truly uproots violence, instead of merely attacking its branches. In a recent statement, the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement notes:

“We need to stop … the insane throwing of taxpayers’ money into the furnace of the war machine instead of solving acute socio-economic and environmental problems…. We demand global de-escalation and disarmament, the dissolution of military alliances, the elimination of armies… We demand open, inclusive and comprehensive negotiations on peace and disarmament … with the participation of pro-peace civil society actors.”

Such peace-forward goals become possible where UCP operates.

UCP is emerging as an idea whose time has come; think of the growing “WE KEEP US SAFE” refrains heard in the U.S. since the 2020 George Floyd uprisings. Trained nonviolent teams can keep communities and nations safe. See also: Nonviolent Peaceforce, active in 5 nations; Cure Violence Global, in 20 nations; Peace Brigades International, Violence Interrupters, Safe Streets, M.A.S.K. of Chicago, LIFE Camp of NYC, and hundreds more. One of UCP’s main benefits is that it counters “good vs. evil” narratives, giving offenders paths back to society. Some of the most skilled UCP leaders are former combatants who’ve realized unarmedprotection is more practical, sustainable, and uplifting.

It’s true that the scale of UCP remains small; UCP groups have a tiny fraction of the funding and recruitment of armed forces, while receiving more protection requests than ever. It’s time this proven, safe, sustainable model enters the public discourse, mass media, and government policy, so we can divest from destructive conflict resolution methods and invest in constructive ones. In the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore: “Safety is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” We must invest in UCP.

This piece was first published on the website of West Suburban Peace Coalition, receiving first place in its 2022 Peace Essay Contest. West Suburban Peace Coalition (, based in Glen Ellyn, IL, has been holding its annual peace essay contest since 2013 as part of its continuing mission to promote peace in Chicago’s western suburbs and beyond. For further information contact Walt Zlotow,