Fulfilling a “Special Role”: Arab Activism in the U.S. for Palestine and the Third World in the 1960s

By Suraya Khan
Submitted to Session P4946 (Articulations of Struggle in Transnational Palestinian Resistance Circuits, 2017 Annual Meeting
Africa (Sub-Saharan); All Middle East; Maghreb; North America; Palestine; Southeast Asia;
19th-21st Centuries; Arab-Israeli Conflict; Colonialism; Diaspora/Refugee Studies; Ethnic American Studies; Identity/Representation; Nationalism; Transnationalism; Zionism;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper examines a transnational network of pro-Palestinian activism from the early 1960s to the years immediately after the 1967 War. The Organization of Arab Students (OAS) and Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG) were two academic-oriented groups that positioned themselves at the forefront of Palestinian advocacy in America. Although based in the United States, members consciously forged transnational connections with other Arabs in the diaspora and third world peoples. While doing so, they articulated the Palestine question as both a third world and Arab-American issue.

Scholars have increasingly devoted attention to Arab-American activism in the post-1967 era, portraying it as an “Arab-American awakening.” However, this paper investigates forms of pro-Palestinian activism on U.S. campuses as early as 1960. The work of these student groups and the relationships they built with leaders of the Arab nationalist movement and nascent PLO laid a foundation for the more extensive organizing that emerged after 1967.

Moreover, scholars who have analyzed the OAS and AAUG have largely neglected to interrogate the transnational character of these organizations. OAS and AAUG members occupied a unique position as recent emigrants from the Arab world or second generation Arab-Americans who were connected with both the Middle East and the United States. Prior to 1967, many Arab immigrants in the OAS were engaged in leftist activism on U.S. campuses by protesting the Vietnam War and civil rights infringements against African-Americans. In their view, the issue of Palestine fit logically alongside these movements. Similarly, although the AAUG formed in response to the Arab defeat of 1967, it refused to limit itself to solely advocating for a just resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Association determinedly aligned itself with both the Palestinian revolutionary movement and the global postcolonial community. OAS and AAUG members professed their support for the struggle against colonialism and neocolonialism not only in Palestine, but also in South Africa, Angola, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

Using the publications and archival papers of the OAS and AAUG, as well as oral history interviews with their members, I investigate how activists in these groups engaged with the Arab League and the revolutionary Palestinian movement prior to and after the 1967 defeat. I further analyze the alliances they constructed with activists in the civil rights and greater third world movements. In doing so, this paper demonstrates that the 1960s witnessed the emergence of a transnational Arab-American intellectual and activist generation.