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Anti-Arab hate, harassment and threats loom over this year’s Arab American Heritage Month


Arab American Heritage Month is intended to commemorate and honor the achievements of the some of the roughly 3.7 million members of the community residing in the U.S.

But this year, many Arab Americans don’t feel inclined to celebrate.

Instances of anti-Arab hate and sentiment have been on the rise in the U.S. since the start of the war in Gaza in October, according to experts, who have received an influx of reports.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) said it received 2,500 reports of anti-Arab hate from October to March, a sharp uptick from the under 500 reports it received in the same time period last year. The Council on American Islamic-Relations also reported receiving the highest number of bias reports in its 30-year history in 2023, with nearly half of them coming in the final three months of the year following the escalation of violence in Gaza. While not all Arabs are Muslim, “Muslim and Arab identities have long been conflated, particularly by those who seek to villainize both, making anti-Muslim hate part and parcel of anti-Arab” racism, according to the organization.

Bias incidents against Arabs range from verbal to fatal. The most high-profile incidents include the fatal stabbing of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy, in Illinois and the shooting of three Palestinian men in Vermont. Experts say the violence in the U.S. is directly linked to the violence in Gaza, where Israel has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians and wounded over 75,000 others in its campaign to eliminate Hamas, according to the enclave’s Ministry of Health.

6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume.
Wadea Al-Fayoume.Courtesy of Hela Yousef

Israel has been accused of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza in the International Court of Justice, which ruled that the country should do everything it can to prevent genocidal acts in the enclave.

“It is hard to celebrate anything with all the death and the destruction happening through the genocide,” said Abed Ayoub, the national executive director of the ADC. “So I think this month — more than any month — is not a celebration, but it’s a show of our resilience, and it’s an opportunity to show our character and the fact that we exist.”

Zaina Ujayli, a 27-year-old Ph.D. student specializing in Arab American history, observes that although the community has long grappled with discrimination and racism, there’s a growing sense of comfort among certain individuals in openly expressing it.

“For the last few months, it’s just been so in your face,” Ujayli said. “It became very real and in your face in a way that I feel like we’d almost worked against in the years before.”

A community under attack

Arab Americans trace their origins to 22 Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and Africa, including the occupied Palestinian territories, Sudan, Algeria and Iraq. The community is not a monolith — Arabs can belong to any racial or religious groups, and differ culturally.

Arab Americans have a long history that stretches to the end of the 19th century, when Arabs started to immigrate to the U.S. to escape conflict and seek economic opportunities.

The long road to establishing a month to celebrate community members’ contributions to art, culture, diplomacy, technology and science started approximately 40 years ago, when advocacy groups including the ADC started pushing for one. It was first recognized at the local level by some states, but in 2021, President Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to declare April as Arab American Heritage Month.

This year, the month comes at a somber time for many Arab Americans, who are watching their family members, friends and fellow Arabs deal with loss, trauma and a looming famine in Gaza. Many supporters of Palestinian human rights have been calling for an end to the violence for the past six months by protesting and appealing to politicians with little result.

Nader Ihmoud.
Nader Ihmoud.Courtesy Nader Ihmoud

“It [Arab American Heritage Month] means nothing, especially with what’s going on,” said Palestinian American Nader Ihmoud, a writer and insurance agent. “If this administration or government here in the U.S. cared about Arab Americans at all, they have completely kept that hidden from us, because all their actions say otherwise.”

In past years, Ujayli said she would usually welcome Arab American Heritage Month by posting about it online, or helping organize events on her school’s campus. But in light of the current climate in the U.S., the month “feels a little bit cheap” this year, she said.

“If you’re not going to recognize Arab Americans’ political demands now, if you’re not going to listen to us when we’re asking you for a cease-fire, for political action — if you’re not even going to meet us with empathy, then I don’t care whether you want to celebrate our presence in this country,” she said.

Biden issued a proclamation again this year in which he acknowledged “the pain being felt by so many in the Arab American community with the war in Gaza” and mourned “the lives taken.”

He also highlighted that in the U.S., Arab Americans “remain the target of bias and discrimination — including harassment, hate crimes, racist rhetoric, and violent attacks,” adding that “hate never goes away. It only hides.”

Feeling unheard and unsafe

Still, some community members say Biden’s words are not enough, especially as his administration continues to send weapons to Israel, potentially assisting the violence in Gaza.

In February, Biden released a statement on the U.S. strikes in Iraq and Syria in response to a deadly drone attack in Jordan that killed three American service members.

“If you harm an American, we will respond,” he said in the statement.

Many Arab Americans are wondering where that energy is for members of the community who have been targeted for being Arab or supporting Palestinian human rights. A few have even been killed or imprisoned in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Ujayli said she has attended protests calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, during which some people drive by and call those gathered “terrorists.” The slur has been employed to marginalize those in the Arab American community, aiming to portray them as outsiders in American society.

“If you’re assuming that your Arab American neighbors are calling for violence every time they go out to protest on the streets, that’s an implicit bias,” Ujayli said. “I frankly think it’s the most American thing it is, to speak out against injustice, to express our freedom of opinion.”

Jasmin Abdullah, a 35-year-old Iraqi American scientist and content creator, says she speaks out against the violence in Gaza on social media and is often met with harassment. She sometimes worries she may lose her job, which she uses to support her family, as a result of the advocacy.

Jasmin Abdullah.
Jasmin Abdullah.Courtesy Jasmin Abdullah

“They’ll attack you and say these horrible things,” Abdullah said about people who have targeted her for her beliefs on the internet. “Then they’ll go to your page and harass you, and they’ll harass people who follow you.”

The group Palestine Legal has been tracking incidents of bias and repression of people who advocate for Palestinian human rights. Since the day Hamas launched an attack in Israel on Oct. 7, the organization has received 1,680 reports of repression, around a 320% increase from the number it typically receives in a year. The incidents range from people being physically attacked for their advocacy to being verbally harassed or fired from their jobs “for doing things as simple as sharing a social media post or statement in support of Palestinians,” said Danya Zituni, communications manager for Palestine Legal.

“We’ve been both seeing and responding to incidents of repression across campuses, across workplaces — and really no industry or profession has been untouched,” Zituni said.

Zituni says statements released by officials acknowledging Arab American Heritage Month come across as disingenuous and hypocritical in light of the repression many community members have been subjected to, including the arrests of students at peaceful protests and the suspension of campus advocacy groups.

These documented incidents have not discouraged Ihmoud from speaking up for Palestinian rights, which he does with his relatives in the West Bank at the forefront of his mind.

“They’re in such a dire state right now that we can’t let our foot off the gas,” he said. “You got to continue pushing all the way until this comes to an end, and it’s not just the war ending — it’s the occupation ending, it’s the right of return. It’s everything that has been on the table for the last 75 years.”

He hopes to one day celebrate Arab American Heritage Month the way that other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. celebrate months dedicated to their history.

“Keep the month,” Ihmoud said. “Just don’t occupy our lands, don’t kill our people, don’t starve our children.”


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