Pamela Pennock, The Rise of the Arab American Left: Activism, Allies, and their Fight Against Imperialism and Racism, 1960s–1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
Pamela Pennock positions her new book, The Rise of the Arab American Left, as a corrective to what she characterizes as a near omission of Arab American activism in histories of the left in the United States. She notes that ethnic studies literature on Third World left movements “dutifully examines” African American, Latino American, Asian American and Native American activism, yet leaves out histories of Arab American activism and the centrality of Palestine to coalitional organizing during this time. This omission, she contends, overlooks Arab American activists’ role in the anti-imperial movements of the 1960s through 1980s and misses an opportunity to understand histories of Arab American coalition building in spite of escalating government surveillance.
Pennock shows that a central organizing strategy for many Arab American activists was to simultaneously work to combat racism in the United States (as one iteration of “home”), while also organizing against US and Israeli ravaging of their countries of origin. In this way, the book contributes meaningfully to conversations on displacement and diaspora in ethnic studies by creating a more complex understanding of what constitutes home for populations in the United States that are subject to state-sanctioned racism within the nation’s borders and must also contend with the long-term, intergenerational ramifications of US empire.
Pennock’s narrative weaves together news briefs, memos, periodicals, court cases, Arab American activist papers, and student organizing flyers from archives in Michigan, Kansas and California. She supplements this archival work with interviews with Arab American activists in Detroit, New York and Chicago. The effect is a cumulative revealing of the depth and breadth of Arab American activism from 1967 until the first intifada in 1987—and the tensions, collaborations and coalitions among Arab American activists and between Arab American activists and other activists of color in the United States.
Although neither her title nor the book’s cover details suggest that this is a book about Palestine, Pennock shows that Palestine—and its erasure, both on the ground and in historical narratives—is at the center of Arab American anti-racist and anti-imperial organizing. At the same time, she positions Arab American actors at the center of the story she tells about Palestine solidarity organizing, instead of foregrounding non-Arab Jewish anti-Zionist or white leftist support for Palestine. She structures the book’s narrative around Palestine and begins with the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and its afterlife in Arab American, and particularly Palestinian, communities in the United States.
Part I follows Arab American student associations as they sought to place the struggle for freedom in the Arab world in the same analytic frame as the struggle for equality in the United States and anti-colonial struggles against US imperial rule. Pennock shows how organizations like the Association of Arab American University Graduates fielded critiques that their work either focused too much on Palestine, and not enough on the rest of the Arab world, or was not sufficiently focused on identity and rights for Arabs in America. She also charts attacks on student activists, from the Anti-Defamation League’s infiltration of the Organization of Arab Students (OAS) convention to then-congressman Gerald Ford’s attack on Arab students as radical agitators and potential terrorists in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Including New Left flyers likening Palestine to Vietnam, Algiers and Angola, and material on coalition building between black radicals and Palestinians, she traces how OAS chapters partnered with Third World liberation organizations on university campuses. She also shows how these alliances were often tenuous and characterized more by shared ideological commitments to anti-imperialism than in-person coalitional organizing. The broader American left’s commitment to Palestine, meanwhile, remained “soft and somewhat perfunctory” at best. They embraced an idealized image of Third World guerillas that they applied superficially to Palestine in lieu of nuanced historical understandings of the region.
Part II begins with Palestinian American Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, who shot and killed presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in June of 1968. Pennock traces how the impact of his “lone, isolated act of political violence” forced Arab American activists to disassociate from Sirhan while still attempting to confront American ignorance of the question of Palestine. Significantly, Pennock shows how many of her interlocutors saw the assassination as a pretext for heightened government surveillance and harassment of Arab Americans. After the Munich massacre in 1972, when members of the Palestinian militant group Black September kidnapped and murdered Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, the Nixon administration launched the Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism (CCCT). The CCCT initiated Operation Boulder, under which the government scrutinized the visas of Arab nonresidents and subjected Arab American students and activists to sustained investigative sweeps. According to Pennock, the effects of these government initiatives fell largely on students, who faced political intimidation meant to suppress organizing and generate suspicion between and among Arab Americans.
In Part III, Pennock shifts to look at community and labor organizing in Dearborn, Michigan, where Arab American activists collaborated with black radical labor activists to protest predatory housing practices in their neighborhoods. Simultaneously, Arab American activists were working to build community centers to connect local issues with transnational ones. Pennock also charts widespread Palestinian organizing beyond Dearborn in the 1970s and 1980s, such as education campaigns, delegations to occupied Palestine, and organizing at national academic conferences like the National Women’s Studies Association. In addition, she details the widespread backlash to Palestine activism, citing, for example, Ms. Magazine founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s 1982 claims that the PLO had “monopolized” the 1975 World Conference on Women and panelists had “dragged Israel through the mud.”
In this way, Pennock’s book is a history of knowledge about Palestine that was produced and policed in university settings from the 1960s through 1980s, which lays bare the often-false dichotomy between scholarship and activism. Her work is thus necessary reading in the current era of coordinated attacks against faculty and students producing scholarship on Palestine and working in solidarity with Palestinian freedom struggles. For this reason, The Rise of the Arab American Left provides an important addendum to works like Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar’s Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2015) and Maryam Griffin and William Robinson’s We Will Not be Silenced: The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics (AK Press, 2017). These books trace the compulsory Zionism and censorship of scholarship on Palestine in US university settings and the harassment and intimidation of scholars who center Palestine in their work or activism.
Though Pennock positions Arab American organizing as progressively less radical and more pragmatic in the years between the 1980s and the present, her book in fact allows for a consideration of the sustained relevance—and persistence—of radical Arab American activism on and off college campuses. Arab American activists and their allies continue to resist coordinated attacks on Palestinian scholars and scholarship on Palestine, President Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to institute a Muslim ban, and the colonial logics and statecraft shared between the United States and Israel. In this landscape, Pennock’s book highlights the importance of centralizing Palestine, historicizing contemporary Arab American activism, and tracing the intersections between the many homes that diasporic activists occupy in their fight against racism within the United States and warfare within its imperial reach.